Ben Carson and the Vicious, Victim-Blaming Circle of Neoliberalism and Gun Violence

06/11/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, October 16, 2015

The presidential candidate Ben Carson should be relegated before long to the dunce-bin of political history. Before he disappears, however, we might take a closer look at his bone-chilling and tone-deaf suggestion that the victims of the recent mass shooting in an Oregon community college were complicit in their own deaths because they failed to rush their heavily armed killer. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon (Carson’s former profession) to see how brain dead and tone-deaf that argument is. But let’s resist the temptation to engage Carson’s “reasoning” by mentioning the obvious barriers to such split-second group action on the part of everyday people. “Never argue with an idiot,” an old saying goes: “you might be confused with one.”

Why mention Carson’s comment at all? Because it is indicative of the vicious, victim-blaming savagery of the neoliberal “personal responsibility” narrative that has taken hold in the United States at the behest of the nation’s ruling capitalist class over the last four decades. Carried to extremes by right-wing Republicans like Carson, this narrative “can imagine,” in the words of the prolific left cultural theorist Henry Giroux, “public issues only as private concerns.”  It works, Giroux notes, to “erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” all questions of social inequality and oppression to “private issues of …individual character and cultural depravity.” Consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature,” it portrays the only barrier to equality and meaningful democratic participation as “a lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” on the part of the poor and oppressed. Popular and governmental efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) sharp societal disparities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and the like are relentlessly portrayed as futile, counterproductive, naïve, and “anti-American.” It all comes down to personal and group irresponsibility on the part of those on the wrong end of structural disparity and oppression. “They did it to themselves” is a central article of American doctrine and not just in the Republican Party.

In the Oregon atrocity, Carson shamelessly applied the same basic viewpoint to community college students and a teacher mowed down by the automatic weapon of a mass murderer. According to Carson, it is your own personal and small-group fault for letting a mass shooting take place in your immediate proximity. Yes, that’s right, rugged and serious Americans, you must  gather your wits, pull yourself up by your boot-straps, and rally yourself and your fellow citizen-patriots to charge straight at the well-armed mass killers in your schools, workplaces, and shopping malls! Get it together, American mass-shooting victims: rise up off your lazy and fearful butts and attack those killers with your bodies! Take some personal responsibility: don’t expect Big Government and its laziness-inducing welfare state to stop those bullets! You certainly must not ask U.S. authorities to do what a conservative-led Australian government did after a shooter wiped out 35 people in Tasmania in April of 1996. Australia undertook a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, roughly one-fifth of all firearms in circulation there. It passed strict laws that prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required gun buyers to provide a “genuine reason” for “needing” each weapon at time of purchase – and “self-defense” did not qualify. Australia hasn’t had a major gun massacre since. Gun homicides and suicides fell dramatically there in the wake of the new legislation.

A nasty irony is that the culture and politics of neoliberal capitalism – carried to absurd extremes in the Republican Party and in Carson’s comment on the Oregon atrocity – are great driving forces behind the generation of a rising number of people so deranged as to murder on a mass scale and equipped to do so. Whence this rising internal cadre of homicidal sociopaths in the U.S.? Why are guns and above all automatic weapons suitable for mass killing so widely and absurdly available in the United States, well within the reach of the large crop of murderous people this society appears to produce on an increasing scale? Why does this society and culture worship deadly and sociopathic violence? In a recent widely read essay, Giroux argued that the real culprit behind the current ongoing epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S. (the Washington Post recently reported that 294 such shootings took place in the first 270 days of 2015) is the neoliberal state-capitalist and military-imperialist U.S. social order:

“Unbridled self-interest, an empty consumerist ethos, and war-like values…produc[e] an indifference to the common good, compassion, a concern for others …[and a]withering of public life….American society is driven by unrestrained market values in which economic actions and financial exchanges are divorced from social costs, further undermining any sense of social responsibility….A wasteful giant military-industrial-surveillance complex fueled by the war on terror along with America’s endless consumption of violence as entertainment and its celebration of a pervasive gun culture normalizes the everyday violence waged against black youth, immigrants, children fed into the school to prison pipeline, and others considered disposable…a society saturated in violence gains credence when its political leaders have given up on the notion of the common good, social justice, and equality, all of which appear to have become relics of history in the United States…Americans are obsessed with violence. They not only own nearly 300 million firearms, but also have a love affair with powerful weaponry such as 9MM Glock semi-automatic pistols and AR15 assault rifles. Collective anger, frustration, fear, and resentment increasingly characterizes a society in which people are out of work, young people cannot imagine a decent future, everyday behaviors are criminalized, inequality in wealth and income are soaring, and the police are viewed as occupying armies. This is not only a recipe for both random violence and mass shootings; it makes such acts appear routine and commonplace.”

That is an all-too-accurate indictment. I would add that the National Rifle Association and its mission of turning every American household into a neo-feudal bastion of heavily armed self-defense are perfectly matched to the proto-fascistic project of neoliberalism.  In the extreme-capitalist/neoliberal anti-vision of life, there is, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “no such thing as society.” As Thatcher, widely heralded in U.S. political culture, elaborated: “Too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families…People must look to themselves…It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbor. People have got the entitlements too much in mind…”

The NRA dream – a 9mm Glock and AR15 in every American home – is perfectly suited to the atomistic ideology of neoliberalism. It’s an ideal match for the notion that society is nothing more than a collection of competitive, disconnected, and individual market actors with no solidaristic obligations and egalitarian commitments beyond self, family, and (sometimes)  neighbor. The mutually paranoid, automatic rifle-brandishing ethos of “Don’t tread on me” fits the project of keeping social and democratic popular sentiments at bay. The gun industry and lobby is part of the ideological weaponry of capitalist neoliberalism as well as the supplier of the actual material weaponry to those consumed with the neoliberalism-fueled impulse to murder on a mass scale.

The blood-drenched (at home and abroad) neoliberal world view should not be confused with anti-statism.  Beneath its “free market” pretensions and its blather against “Big Government,” it is only opposed to what the left sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”:  the parts of government, won by past popular movements, that protect and advance the interests of workers, the poor, and the common good. Those are the “entitlements” properly marked for rollback, starving, and elimination in the neoliberal world view. The “right hand of the state” – the parts of government that work to redistribute wealth and power yet further upward, fight wars, and discipline the working and lower class majority – is to remain big, well-fed, and powerful. Those and other unmentionable ruling class entitlements stay intact and indeed grow, with government’s repressive functions expanding in accord with the misery and chaos imposed on the working and lower classes by the relentless “free market” rollback and slashing of opportunities and supports.  Rampant “homeland” gun violence, fanned and fueled by Hollywood and the NRA – and by the psychosis-inducing marginalization and ruthless disposability of an ever-rising share of “surplus” and “precariatized” Americans – provides yet another systemically self-fulfilling pretext for the expansion of a militarized police state that functions (under the guise of “security”) for the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, white-supremacism, patriarchy, and eco-cide.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2015).


Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism

06/11/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, October 9, 2015

In their historic 1848 Communist Manifesto, the great radical thinkers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels offered a curious dialectical celebration of rapacious industrial capitalism. To be sure, Marx and Engels had no illusions about the evil of that system. They observed that “the bourgeoisie” (the capitalist investors and manufacturers of the mid-19th century) undertook “the subjection of Nature’s forces to man” not to benefit humanity but to selfishly accumulate profits in accord with their soulless reduction of “personal worth” to “exchange value.” The venal capitalists “left remaining no other nexus between man and man than callous ‘cash payment,’…drown[ing society and culture] …in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” For economic exploitation “veiled” under feudalism “by religious and political illusions,” the founders of modern communism wrote, the bourgeois system “substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation…In place of the numerous indefeasible chartered freedoms,” the profits system “set up that single unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.”

There was no freedom for working people behind and beyond factory walls, Marx and Engels knew. “As privates of the industrial army,” they wrote, wage-earners were “placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.”

Still, the originators of “scientific socialism” were cheered by the emergence of a vast industrial laboring class toiling in the factories, shipyards, mines and mills that capitalism created. Competitively compelled to “constantly revolutioniz[e] the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production,” the Manifesto argued, capitalists generated their own gravediggers – the “embitter[ed]’” proletariat, the natural agent of socialist and communist revolution. “Not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself [ultimately liberating forces of production too great to be channeled into bourgeois confines in Marx’s analysis]; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons — the modern working class – the proletarians.”

The Midwife of Socialism as Angle of Death

While Engels’ and above all Marx’s radical critique and analysis of capitalism remains remarkably relevant in the current era, subsequent history has not been terribly kind to their dialectical romance with industrial capitalism or to their faith in the eventual emancipating power of modern industry. Socialism on Marx’s radical-democratic model – or on any other kind – has not emerged out of working class movements in any of the most “advanced” industrial-capitalist nations of the world – in England, on the European continent, Japan, China, or in the United States. The industrial working class has joined and formed recurrent remarkable social and political movements in different times and places but it has not proved revolutionary in the sense anticipated with “scientific” certainty by the young Marx and Engels. The classic zones of bourgeois and industrial revolution have remained captive to capital and bourgeois rule, thanks in no small part to their privileged position atop the world capitalist and imperial state system.

Socialism of a kind very different from the radical and democratic sort embraced by Marx emerged during the last century not in the heartlands of capitalism, industrialism, and bourgeois revolution but in the mostly pre-industrialized, pre-capitalist, peasant-based, and autocratic nations of Russia and China. In the Soviet Union and empire, an authoritarian form of state socialism undertook the work of industrialization, reproducing Western capitalism’s class-based corporate and top-down division and command of labor though (no small differences) without capitalists and private corporate for-profit ownership of leading economic institutions and with the state in charge of the economy and the provision of basic social goods.

At the same time, modern mass-production/mass-consumer industrialism has proven itself less the midwife of socialism (democratic or otherwise) than a cancerous threat to life on Earth. The two great industrial and superpower rivals of the second half of the 20th century – the state-capitalist United States and the bureaucratic-collectivist and state-socialist Soviet Union – both engaged in colossal assaults on livable ecology. The leading environment-and health-mauler has by far and away been the western, U.S.-led bourgeois system of mass consumption and built-in obsolescence, always far more technologically “productive” (and destructive) than the now defunct Soviet system. This planet-wrecking socioeconomic regime has expanded its reach like never before across the entire planet in the neoliberal and post-Cold War age. Still, the vanguard/command model of industrial state socialism that prevailed in Stalinist Russia and the Soviet empire for many decades also engaged in significant fossil-fueled ecological criminality to advance its own model of Nature-attacking hyper-accumulation. Mao’s “communist” revolution ended up as the state-command dispossessor, assembler, and discipliner of a giant industrial proletariat created for monumental world-capitalist exploitation and eco-cidal, fossil-fueled mass production directed largely by giant multinational US and other Western corporations in China’s vast industrial frontier (the world’s leading zone of capitalist surplus value creation and accumulation since the 1980s.)

Together, with Western and Japanese state capitalism far in the lead, the great industrial powers of the last century and the current have brought humanity to the precipice of true environmental catastrophe courtesy of the industrial Greenhouse Effect (discovered by French and British physicists during Marx’s lifetime). Earth scientists today warn with increasing urgency and an army of terrible data that the modern, carbon-burning industrial civilization that Marx and Engels embraced in their own dialectical way in the mid-19th century (albeit long before the full “Anthropocene”-defining environmental ravages of capital were remotely evident) now raises the very real specter of human extinction. It is a curious climatological version of what The Communist Manifesto said befell societies where necessary revolutions failed to occur: “the common ruin of the contending classes.” (One plausible thesis holds that the remarkable growth and productivity dividend that the heedless drilling and burning of oil, gas, and coal afforded the West in the last two centuries has been a critical factor permitting capital to avoid the working class revolution that the two young Communists prophesized.)

Teeming With Life

Hope for survival – for that is what is at stake – seems to reside in spaces abandoned by the great industrial capitalist and socialist powers of the last century. In a recent Counterpunch essay, journalist Gary Leech recounts how the island nation of Cuba has “redefined socialism” in the wake of the decline of its former protector the Soviet Union. Over the past two decades, Leech shows, Cuba has moved towards a more participatory system that also happens to be an outstanding model of environmentally sustainable and healthy, permaculturalist economics:

“In the 1980s, Cuba more closely reflected the state socialist model that ultimately failed in the Soviet Union….But with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the socialist trading bloc, Cuba had to become more creative if it was to survive both literally and figuratively as an island of socialism in an ocean of capitalism. And it was the creative survival strategies that emerged during the 1990s that have helped to redefine socialism in Cuba today….The collapse of the Soviet Union, in conjunction with a corresponding tightening of the five-decades-long US blockade, meant that Cuba could no longer import sufficient food or oil. The country responded to the shortage of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers by becoming the world’s leader in organic agriculture. It responded to the shortage of fuel by becoming a leader in urban agriculture to diminish the need to transport food great distances to markets. As a result, more than 80 percent of the country’s agricultural production is now organic… [and produced by] smaller worker-owned cooperatives. The new cooperatives not only increased production, they also constituted a shift away from state socialism by empowering workers who previously had little or no voice in the running of their workplaces….This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products…”

“The shift to a more ecologically sustainable agricultural production has resulted in healthy organic food being the most convenient and inexpensive food available to Cubans. Because of the US blockade, processed foods are more expensive and not readily available. This reality stands in stark contrast to that in wealthy capitalist nations such as the United States and Canada where heavily-subsidized agri-businesses flood the market with cheap, unhealthy processed foods while organic alternatives are expensive and more difficult to obtain. The consequence in the United States is high levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

Thanks in no small part to these remarkable innovations on an island abandoned by 20th century Soviet industrial socialism and embargoed by US-led 20th and 21st century state capitalism, Cuba stands out among all nations (rich and poor) in a critical way. The makers of the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) have found that Cuba is the only country on the planet to combine a standard of living and quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint. A report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) includes a graph that shows two features for the nations of the world: the HDI (including measures of life expectancy, poverty, literacy, health care, and the like) and “ecological footprint” – the energy and resources consumed per person in each country. Only Cuba received a passing grade in both areas.

As the University of British Columbia notes,

“In 2006, the WWF declared Cuba to be the only sustainable nation based on ecological footprint and human development index.  The majority of food grown in Cuba is produced without chemicals.  Good bugs fight bad bugs in the fields.  Their soils – like their communities – are teeming with life….Today, Cuba’s agricultural cooperatives provide 80 percent of the food produced in Cuba and her system of urban agriculture is a model for the world. Building on the success of her agricultural cooperatives, Cuba is now taking bold new steps to build a more cooperative, just and people-centred economy.”

Call it Earth Science-friendly socialism – or maybe even earth-scientific socialism.

Seeds of the New in the Shell of the Old

Meanwhile, up in the former industrial heartland of the North American superpower, something significantly similar has happened in Detroit – a city viciously disowned and discarded by capital in the world’s leading capitalist state. Over 20 square miles (a space nearly as big as Manhattan) of this former capital city of capitalist mass production (and of mass production unionism) now lay vacant – deserted by capital. On a recent trip to the onetime headquarters of the once dominant American auto industry – now home to concentrated and hyper-segregated mass Black poverty and joblessness on an epic scale – teleSur English’s Maria Sitrin found that “people in Detroit have been taking back their city…creating the new in the shell of the old.” Ordinary working people on the inner-city ground of capitalist abandonment have developed a health-nurturing urban farming and cooperative system that is planting the at once literal and figurative seeds of an alternative economic structure within the rotting urban residue of a profits system that turned Detroit into the ultimate Rustbelt city:

“people have been growing food in abandoned buildings, vacant lots, torn down structures and other cracks in the system. I learned… that the shell of abandoned buildings is good for keeping raised plant beds warm [and]….of students – thousands of them – learning about community, health, care and cooperation in their schools through working in school gardens [and]…of weekly fresh produce recipe swaps amongst dozens of seniors and regular neighborhood community potlucks [and that]…one can buy carrots, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables outside gas station stores – organized by teens. Detroit is building the new in the cracks of the old…. Over the past ten years, as the economic crisis deepens and people’s abilities to survive are challenged even more, they are turning to one another and looking around at ways to survive. In this case, the around is on the thousands of vacant lots, often abandoned by business who have long taken the jobs elsewhere, or landowners no longer able to pay taxes or mortgages. Rather than leave the land abandoned and fallow, people have been coming together to make it productive. This is no small task, and with the cooperation of thousands of people the urban farms and gardens in Detroit produce 200 tons of produce each year. The number of urban gardens has gone from fewer than 100 before the year 2000 to over 2000 in 2015. What this means in human terms is that those people who work the gardens eat 2.5 more servings of fruits or vegetables than those who do not….These numbers are especially important considering Detroit is a ‘food desert’ meaning that there are no major food retail outlets selling fresh produce. Those smaller ones that do exist are few and far between, and the produce they have is often terrible… While there is an ever growing number of networks organized by urban farms and gardens with people teaching others strategies for urban gardening, at the same time there are and continue to be many people who just learn themselves and teach one another in their neighborhoods.”

Socialism as the Basis for Sustainability

The synergy between Leech’s Cuba and Sitrin’s Detroit is undeniable and powerful. Faced with material, social, and political desertion (and embargo in Cuba’s case) by top-down, industrialized, and eco-cidal elites, the people themselves stepped in to craft new and healthy, environmentally sustainable bottom up strategies for survival. They have generated their own healthy, life-sustaining means of production and distribution at the most basic level – food. They have done so through methods that stand in harmonious and regenerative – rather than conflictual and extractivist – relations to the Earth we all share. Imagine.

This is not the path laid out in The Communist Manifesto. It’s not really about building on, or mimicking capital’s purported grand industrial triumph, understood as an ultimately welcome dialectical bridge to a world beyond exploitation, private profit, and the necessity of toil. It’s also not about the naïve bourgeois “utopian socialism” that Marx and Engels mocked in their historic document. It’s about people stepping naturally and organically outside of cancerous capitalism, in places abandoned and embargoed by capital, to engage in the hard but useful and cooperative work of building new modes of nourishing, life-upholding production and distribution from the Earthly bottom up.

There is of course an important difference between Cuba and Detroit, one that Marxists will appreciate. The Cuban example has taken place with the participation and encouragement of the Cuban government, consistent with the independent and truly radical-socialist impulses of the 1959 Cuban Revolution [1]. The Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Pérez tells Leech that Cuba laid the basis for an environmentally sustainable society “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals…You cannot think about sustainability,” Perez explains, “if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability.” This is a critical point. As the New York City-based Marxist writer Louis Proyect noted last May, “capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity and nature are to survive. Once we can eliminate the profit motive, the door is open to rational use of natural resources for the first time in human history. How we make use of such resources will naturally be informed by our understanding that reason governs the outcome and not quarterly earnings. The alternative,” Proyect reminds us, “to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction.” (The savagery, for what it’s worth, is well underway in the U.S., home to 290 mass shootings in the first 270 days of 2015 and to a global military Empire that regularly murders innocents – most recently 22 patients and doctors at a Doctors Without Borders facility in Afghanistan – abroad on a mass scale). Ecosocialists: do not throw out the anti-capitalist baby with the industrialist bathwater!

The cooperative urban farming movement described by Sitrin in Detroit and in other zones of bourgeois, exchange value-driven capitalist abandonment across the U.S. is occurring in the urban shadows of a nation that remains captive to the world’s most powerful capitalist class and its hidden, unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, race, patriarchy, and eco-cide. Its geographic positioning, however, makes it in one sense more significant than the wonderful Cuban developments captured by Leech. Detroit, after all, rests in the belly of the beast, the great capitalist and imperial state that continues to do the most by far to yoke the world to the deadly, exterminist, environmentally catastrophist “global treadmill” of mass production, mass consumption, and private, plutocratic accumulation. If we might turn the mass-production enthusiast Leon Trotsky on his eco-industrial head and then set him back on his feet in the United States, it is in this country above all where the duty of popular, permaculturalist and eco-socialist revolution is greatest and where the liberating potential of such revolution for humanity is most advanced

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).


[1]. Leech notes that Cuba’s shift towards a less statist and more participatory model of socialism through the formation of cooperatives has been misunderstood by U.S. media as a shift to capitalism. “Unlike in capitalist nations,” Leech explains, “Cuba has not simply laid off thousands of public sector workers and left them to fend for themselves as unemployed desperately seeking private sector jobs. The layoffs are a multi-year process and, due to the 2011 economic reforms, many workers will continue to perform the same job. For instance, in many sectors, such as stores, bars, restaurants and transportation, workers have been offered the opportunity to establish cooperatives and to take over their existing places of business….In one such case, five workers in a state-owned restaurant formed a cooperative and now lease the property from the state and run the business as their own. So while they are part of the downsizing of the public sector because they no longer work for the state, they continue to do the same job as previously. In the eyes of many, such a transition actually constitutes a strengthening of socialism rather than a shift towards capitalism because it is empowering workers who now have a meaningful voice in their workplace—something they didn’t have under state socialism and would not have under corporate capitalism…The establishment of small private enterprises constitutes a redefining of Cuban socialism because it liberates workers from the hierarchical structures of state socialism by allowing them to become their own bosses. Further evidence that allowing small businesses and cooperatives to emerge does not necessarily represent a shift to capitalism is the fact that it remains illegal to establish a corporation. Because an individual is only permitted to own one place of business, corporate chains that monopolize production and markets cannot be established so the overwhelming majority of businesses remain locally-owned and rooted in the community…What Cuba is attempting to avoid are the gross inequalities that inevitably result from monopoly corporate capitalism where workers have no meaningful voice in their daily work lives. So while many mainstream analysts in the United States view the shift to small private businesses as a move towards capitalism, such a view ignores the reality that small privately-owned businesses are not unique to capitalism, they existed in societies long before capitalist model came into existence.”

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class

06/11/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, October 6, 2015

Contemporary history is neither a series of random occurrences nor the predetermined plaything of a small cabal of super-empowered conspirators. The truth is somewhere in-between. A sizeable cadre of class- and system-conscious deep-state and imperial planners from the heights of concentrated private and governmental power join together to shape the outlines of much of recent history. Along with professional class “experts” agreeable to their basic aims, they do so in accord with their shared interests in the endless upward accumulation of wealth and power. They serve the profits system that is still headquartered primarily in the United States even as it develops ever more and varied outposts across a globalizing world.

They exercise vastly disproportionate influence on the course of events and policy largely behind the scenes, in the darkly deceptive name of democracy. But it isn’t about conspiracy. The planners in question are numerous. Their names, activities, and backgrounds and the record of their influence are all open to investigation by those with the time, skill, energy, and willingness to make the connections.

It’s about class power and the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, wealth, and empire that rule beneath and beyond the pretense of popular governance. (“We must make our choice,” the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1941: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.”) It’s about capitalism and its evil twin imperialism, with strong doses of racism, patriarchy, nationalism, police-statism, and eco-cide thrown in. It’s about what Karl Marx called “the bourgeoisie’s…need of a constantly expanding market …over the whole surface of the globe.” “Capital,” the German left Marxist Rosa Luxemburg once observed, “needs the means of production and the labor power of the whole world for untrammeled accumulation.”

Nowhere is the planning and influence of the ruling class of the world’s and history’s most powerful capitalist state, the United States, more evident than in the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR). There are hundreds of institutions and organizations in which elite planning and networking occurs both at home and abroad. But, as the left historian Shoup shows in his indispensable new book Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council of Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014 (Monthly Review Press, 2015), no such group remotely approximates the CFR in scale, reach, and influence when it comes to articulating the national and global class interests of the U.S. capitalist elite and a growing transnational capitalist ruling class. With an individual membership of 5000 (boasting an average household worth of $1.4 million), a top Fortune 500 corporate membership of 170, a staff over 330, a budget of $60 million, and assets of $490 million, the Council is “the largest and most powerful of all U.S. private think tanks that presume to discuss and decide the future of humanity in largely secret meetings behind closed doors in the upper-class neighborhoods of New York and Washington. During the last four decades,” Shoup observes, “the CFR has not only successfully continued its central position as the most important private organization in the United States, one with no real peer in the country. It has succeeded in expanding its key role, and remains at the center of the small plutocracy that runs the United States and much of the world.”

Consistent with that description, CFR members have long played prominent roles in the U.S. executive branch. Some among the many examples (what follows is a small sample) include President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of treasury (Michael Blumenthal), national security adviser (Zbigniew Brzezinski), secretary of state (Cyrus Vance), and arms control director (Paul Warnke), vice president (Walter Mondale), secretary of defense (Harold Brown), and CIA director (Stansfield Turner); President Ronald wallstthinkReagan’s secretaries of state (Alexander Haig and George Schultz), national security advisers (Colin Powell and Frank Carlucci), secretary of treasury (Donald Regan), secretaries of defense (Casper Weinberger and Frank Carlucci) and CIA directors (William Casey and William Weber); ten of CFR member George H.W. Bush’s eleven top foreign policymakers; fifteen of CFR member Bill Clinton’s top seventeen foreign policymakers along with two of three of Clinton’s treasury secretaries; fourteen of George W. Bush’s top foreign policy officials; twelve of Obama’s top foreign policy positions along with CFR members in five of his domestic policy cabinet positions.

The CFR possesses an unrivalled and vast domestic network of overlapping membership and directors with other leading “nonprofit” think-tanks and policy groups (Brookings, Carnegie, the Wilson Center, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the RAND Corporation. and many more), other private policy groups (including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council, and the Business Roundtable), leading lobbying firms, top Fortune 500 corporations, top private equity and other non-bank investment firms, the top for-profit strategic political risk and advisory corporations (including Kissinger Associates and the Albirght-Stonebridge Group), leading universities (Harvard and Yale above all), major foundations (led especially by the Rockefeller Foundation), and top corporate media including numerous key connections with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

The CFR’s Studies Program generated more than 180 books between 1987 and 2014 and just less than 1800 academic journal articles between 1993 and 2014. The CFR’s regular monthly journal Foreign Affairs is the single most influential of all print media publications among government policymakers. CFR Fellows regularly publish Opinion-Editorials and appear in broadcast media to advance the CFR’s neoliberal (see note 1 below for Shoup’s useful definition of “neoliberalism”) and imperial agenda. The organization holds nearly a thousand meetings a year, mainly in New York and Washington but also in numerous other large cities across the U.S. And CFR leaders engage in countless informal consultations and briefings with U.S. and foreign government leaders at home and abroad.

Consistent with the emergence over the past four decades of a “small but increasingly integrated transnational capitalist class….in some respects a worldwide ruling class” (Shoup), the CFR has since the 1970s developed a large number of international networks with wealthy and powerful “superclass” individuals and groups around the world. Relevant institutions here include its British counterpart and sister group The Royal Institute of International Affairs, the elite European Bilderberg Group, the heavily corporate-permeated Trilateral Commission (combining U.S., European, and Japanese elites who joined together to combat the “excess of democracy” in the early 1970s), the G30 (the Group of Thirty, a private gathering of top private and public financial authorities from across the U.S., Europe, and Asia), the CFR’s International Advisory Board (headed by super-wealthy capitalists from across the world), and a global CFR “Council of Councils” bringing together the top neoliberal think-tanks from the world’s richest 20 nations.

No societal stratum has been more prominently and influentially represented in the CFR than the top section of the U.S. capitalist class, Shoup shows. With one possible partial exception, all of the organization’s top ten leaders over the last four and a half decades have come from the capitalist elite “and especially represent the financial sector known as Wall Street.” Examples include CFR chairs David Rockefeller (heir to the greatest family fortune in history, head of Chase Manhattan Bank, and CFR chair from 1970 to 1985), Peter Peterson (the billionaire co-founder of the private equity Blackstone Group and CFR chair from 1985 to 2007), and current CFR chair Robert Rubin (former CEO of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, adviser to top Obama administration economic policymakers, and CFR co-chair since 2007).

The capitalist, Wall Street-oriented nature of the CFR is something the body does not like to advertise about itself. One of its longtime Senior Fellows and top intellectuals, Michael Mandelbaum readily acknowledged ten years ago that “a relatively small foreign policy elite…sets the general course of [U.S.] foreign policy….with little or no input from the wider public.” But, Shoup notes, “what [Mandelbaum] refers to as an ‘elite’ is actually a capitalist ruling class led by his own organization, the CFR.”

“There are only a relatively few important domestic institutions not connected or [at least] minimally tied to the Council,” Shoup notes, “and those are generally on the far-right side of the political spectrum.” The most prominent example is “the Koch Brothers economic and political empire,” which does not share the CFR’s faith in “a powerful state” – one that provides the capitalist elite with “government protection, intervention, and largess.” The CFR has little interest in association with any institutions and actors “that are at least a little left of center, such as most of today’s labor movement…considered irrelevant by the Council.”

To be clear, the CFR’s ideal “powerful state” is capitalist-neoliberal and imperial. It is one in which what the left sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the right hand of the state” (the parts of government that work to redistribute wealth and power yet further upward, fight wars, and discipline the working and lower class majority) is far more potent and well-funded than “the left hand of the state”: the parts of government, won by past popular movements, that protect and advance the interests of workers, the poor, and the common good. The CFR’s recent and deceptively named “Renewing America Initiative” for “restoring U.S. global power at home” advocates federal debt reduction not through progressive taxation or cutting back the giant Pentagon budget (a massive subsidy to high-tech corporations that accounts for 54% of U.S. federal discretionary spending) but through major rollbacks of so-called entitlements like Social Security and Medicare (Shoup explains that both programs “are actually not gifts but the earned savings from the millions of workers, held in trust by the federal government”). It calls for tying immigration policy more directly to “the market needs of corporations,” for the rollback of public sector union membership and power, and for increased domestic and eco-cidal oil and gas drilling (including hydraulic fracturing) and strip mining. All of this is contrary to majority public U.S. opinion.

In his influential 2013 book Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order, CFR President Richard Haass (a director of a leading global investment management firm, Fortress Management) called for a significant extension of the U.S. retirement age. He looked forward to a time “when people [who] turn sixty…will still be ‘facing as many as ten to twenty years of work.’” Like most CFR officials and many of the organization’s members, Haass, a privatization advocate, doesn’t have to work another day in his life if he doesn’t want to.

It is all very consistent with the argument of CFR member and Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington’s argument in 1975 book The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission. Acknowledging candidly that capitalism is opposed to popular governance, Huntington argued that the U.S. was suffering from an “excess of democracy” and a “democratic distemper” resulting from disorderly citizen upsurges during the 1960s. To calm this dangerous overindulgence of popular sovereignty, Huntington recommended, among other things, a weakening of government expenditures and regulations and an expansion of private “free market” capitalism’s role. As Shoup notes, “The bluntness of Huntington’s and direct advocacy of the neoliberal[1] gospel violated a taboo among the powerful of U.S. society, namely that the rhetoric of the United States as a wonderful and exceptionally democratic society should never be openly challenged.”

Who will save us from the calamitous relevance of the CFR? The CFR’s fingerprints, Shoup shows, are all over domestic U.S. and global history since the 1970s, Shoup shows. The drastic upward concentration of wealth and power that has taken place both within and beyond the U.S. (the top U.S. 1 % currently possesses more wealth than the nation’s bottom 90%) over the last four decades traces directly to the neoliberal – extreme capitalist (post-Keynesian, “post-Fordist,” and even “Millennial” capitalism in the language of top class- and system-conscious CFR intellectuals like Yale’s Walter Russell Mead[2]) – world view and policies that CFR directors and experts have powerfully and relentlessly advanced in accord with the organization’s corporate and financial essence over the last four decades. The monumental, mass-murderous, and globally significant U.S. destruction of Iraq – the most important and disastrous U.S. foreign policy action since “the Vietnam war” (the U.S. war on Southeast Asia) – was carried out in accord with the CFR’s openly imperial and neoliberal calls for Washington to seize control of Iraq’s vast oil resources (understood by top CFR experts as a critical weapon of hegemonic geopolitical leverage in the world capitalist economic and military system) and turn Iraq into a “free market paradise.”[3] Undeterred by Washington’s criminal failures in Iraq, the CFR relentlessly pushes forward the imperial, US-led expansion of “the empire of neoliberal geopolitics.” It advances the expansion of NATO, investor rights “free trade” measures (the arch-corporatist-globalist Trans Pacific Partnership [TPP] and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership [TTIP]), a growing and dangerous military rivalry with China in the western Pacific, the drive to incorporate Ukraine and other former Soviet states into Western capitalism (helping stoke a potentially deadly conflict with Russia), the destruction of Syria, the protection of key imperial partner Israel, the terrorization and militarization of the vast darker-skinned “developing world” through the far-flung deployment of jihad-fueling Special Operations Forces and drone strikes (among numerous other murderous and racist U.S.-imperial means), the spread of dispossession-inducing forms of genetically engineered agriculture, and the advocacy of destructive neoliberal social policies in the vast and deeply impoverished global South.

Meanwhile, the scourge of anthropogenic climate change emerges as the leading threat to human survival and a decent future with no serious acknowledgement or opposition from the CFR, consistent with its fierce neoliberal opposition to any serious restrictions on capital. As Shoup notes, “The facts of the global ecological crisis are ones that a capitalist-class organization like the CFR do not want to face: to save the planet and its existing life-forms, fossil-fuel mining and burning has to be severely restricted by government fiat. This conclusion goes against the entire neoliberal free-market monopoly finance capitalist world order that the CFR has sponsored.”

The at once capitalist and imperialist commitments of the CFR trump the basic material requirements of human and survival, making it an existential imperative for humanity to undertake a popular-democratic revolution to bring into being “nation states controlled by the people” instead of plutocracies run by capitalist “deep states” made up in the U.S. by the CFR and its many power elite partner groups. It’s popular, participatory and democratic eco-socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky – or extinction, it appears.


1 By Shoup’s analysis the former dominant Western capitalist paradigm of Keynesianism has “been replaced” over the last four decades “by the doctrinal cluster of ideas called ‘neoliberalism,’ formally dedicated to the free movement of capital and goods worldwide (free markets) and multinational and transnational corporate globalization, promoted and enforced by state power. This is capital’s default position, the direction that the system always pushes toward, taking into account the level of class struggle from below. Besides being an economic prescription, the corporate liberation project of neoliberalism also represents an ideological attack on the ideas of collective property (socialism), national development (national liberation), and social solidarity (trade unionism and community). Instead, individualism is exalted.” In the “Keynesian scheme” and “system” that the Western capitalist elite briefly and contingently accepted to a significant degree in the middle third of the last century, “unions for workers were accepted with the ‘class compromise’; state-imposed regulations restrained some actions of capital; taxes on corporations and the wealthy were relatively high; state planning, industrial policy, and state ownership existed in many cases; and there was some attempt at achieving full employment and a level of social welfare of rank-and-file citizens through varied forms of social welfare.”  Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank, 163-164.

2 In his 2004 book Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, Mead, the CFR’s Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy “discusses the transition from what he calls the ‘Fordist’ era of capitalist development dominant from the 1910s to the 1970s to our current era of what he calls ‘Millennial Capitalism,’ almost entirely avoiding the more useful and accurate terms ‘Keynesianism’ and ‘neoliberalism.’ The term ‘Fordism,’ as used by Mead, is simply the policy of certain capitalists, one of the first being Henry Ford, to pay their mass production workers enough to purchase the goods they, the workers, produce. Mead does not mention the intense and costly class struggles that workers engaged in over many decades to achieve even some level of unionization and the resulting higher wages, better working conditions, and benefits in a given industry. He simply presents it as a given that eventually some capitalists accepted unions, resulting in a more administered, regulated, and stable socioeconomic system, characterized by some state planning, a level of class compromise and less income equality…Mead points out that Fordism/Keynesianism ‘has gradually been yielding to …a new more vigorous form of capitalism’ which is now being invented and explored…what he calls ‘Millennial Capitalism.’” Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank, 193. (Amongst themselves, ruling and professional class “elites” are not entirely averse to communicating in significantly class- and system-conscious ways about capitalism as they understand it.)

3 For the CFR’s neoliberal, war-mongering, and petro-imperialist geo-political thinking in support of the calamitous, arch-criminal, and mass-murderous occupation and destruction of Iraq, see the following essays cited and quoted by Shoup: CFR President Richard Haass, “What to Do With American Primacy,” Foreign Affairs (Sept-Oct. 1999); Fouad Ajami, “The Sentry’s Solitude,” Foreign Affairs (November-December 2001); CFR Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack, “Next Stop Baghdad?,” Foreign Affairs (March-April 2002); Sebastian Mallaby, “The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire,” Foreign Affairs (March-April, 2002); Donald Rumsfeld, “Transforming the Military,” Foreign Affairs (May-June 2002); Elliot Cohen, “A Tale of Two Secretaries,” Foreign Affairs (May-June 2002); CFR Senior Fellow Michael Mandelbaum, “U.S. Most Plan Post-Hussein Iraq,” Newsday, August 1, 2002; Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (New York: A Council of Foreign Relations Book, Random House, 2002); Pollack, “Securing the Gulf,” Foreign Affairs (July-August 2003, published under the heading “It’s the Oil, Stupid”). I recall reading the essays listed above before and after George W, Bush’s invasion and being struck by how openly imperial and oil-focused (petro-imperial) the CFR’s intra-elite discussion was – all quite contrary to the official American Exceptionalist doctrine holding that the U.S. never behaves in imperial ways. (Empire, too, is not a taboo topic amongst leading power elite planners.) Top CFR thinker Michael Mandelbaum (a leading Iraq invasion advocate), however, explains that “if America is a Goliath, it is a benign one”: a benevolent empire that acts out of a noble and selfless desire to make the world, a better, safer, and more democratic place. See Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century (2005). The millions of Iraqis killed, murdered, and displaced by compassionate Uncle Sam in this century (and in the last one) do not match the thesis – along with much else.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Wellhead and Tailpipe

02/11/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, October 2, 2015

This is an age of eco-Orwellian cognitive dissonance.  Three years and three months ago, then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Norway to negotiate increased U.S. access to the Arctic’s vast oil reserves.  She sailed on a research vessel to see in person the melting of the Arctic under the pressure of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) – an experience she called “sobering.” Back on land, she went straight into a meeting to strategize for increased Arctic oil production with an Exxon Mobil executive and the CEO of Norway Statoil.

A different version of the same absurd, eco-Orwellian drama was acted out in a different Arctic setting by U.S. president Barack Obama this August. Obama went to Alaska to see firsthand the toll that carbon-driven planet-cooking is taking on Arctic frost. Obama’s junket North included a speech on climate change that “bordered on the apocalyptic” (New York Times) and argued with seeming passion that “we’re not acting fast enough” to heal the Earth.

Never mind that just last May Obama cleared the way for the giant climate-changing multinational oil corporation Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to drill in the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. Shell’s leases are 70 miles out, in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills. Environmental groups had long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a decent future.” According to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport, speaking on the “P”BS Newshour last May, the Chukchi Sea announcement had environmental groups “surprised.”

Nobody should have been surprised. The decision came just four months after Obama had opened up a large portion of the southern U.S. Atlantic coast to new deep-water offshore drilling. In late March of 2010, three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Obama freed up 167 million acres along the eastern U.S. seaboard for Big Oil extraction.

The president’s “drill, baby drill” record ever since has been calamitous. It has greased the skids for the United States’ largely fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of an “all-of-the-above” (nuclear included) energy policy and so-called national energy independence. “Beneath his climate change policies,” Slate’s Eric Holthaus recently noted, “Obama is basically running a petrostate.” Consistent with that observation, Obama’s faux-green Alaska trip included a call by the president for an increase in U.S. Coast Guard vessels equipped with ice-cutting tools to further America’s competitiveness in the international race for the exploration, drilling, and extraction of Arctic oil.

How is it that that Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama, and the petro-statist Democratic Party more broadly are lauded by their “liberal” supporters and denounced by their Republican critics as environmentalist enemies of AGW? Beneath the undeniable contribution of Republican-leaning propaganda from the U.S. Big Carbon lobby and wishful partisan thinking on the part of Democrats, one key to the absurdity lay in a great cognitive failure that even many smart climate scientists have exhibited: a framing of the excess atmospheric carbon that is heating Mother Earth almost entirely around the sale and combustion of carbon at the expense of serious attention to the exploration, development, and production of fossil fuels.  The political culture and even much of the scientific and environmentalist discourse has been obsessed with what British climate change communications strategist George Marshall calls “the tailpipe” of carbon sale and emissions, ignoring the basic point-of-extraction “wellheads” and “mineheads” of  AGW.

This over-focus on the back end of humanity’s extreme carbon pollution is no small part of “why,” in Marshall’s words, “we keep fueling the fire we want to put out.” It is also part of why so many can be fooled into thinking that a militantly petro-capitalist president like Obama is a planet-loving climate change-fighter. Beyond his seemingly heartfelt statements of concern for livable ecology, his calls for people to acknowledge and heed the warnings of climate science, and his support for limited renewable energy production, Obama does, after all, advocate and enforce various and increased “tailpipe” regulations and restrictions on final emissions (Never mind for now that he almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts for binding global carbon emission limits in Copenhagen in December of 2009.) U.S. truckers bitch about “Obama’s” Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on engine emissions as Obama presides over the phenomenal growth of U.S. gas and oil production, leading among other things to a bright light of burning gas that can be seen across the fracking fields of North Dakota from outer space.

The tailpipe/wellhead dissonance is hardly limited to the U.S., of course. As Marshall notes in his chilling book Don’t Even Think About It (2014), “In England, energy and climate change are combined into one government department leading to simultaneous action to reduce emissions and to boost oil production. One month the minister of Energy and Climate Change brags about the allocations of new licenses to release twenty billion barrels of oil around British coasts. The next month the Minister of Energy and Climate Change announces an ambitious plan for the government to reduce its emissions by 10 percent.” The great British novelist and social critic George Orwell would be impressed.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces detailed data on nationally aggregated per capita greenhouse gas emissions. This data has been used as the empirical basis for international climate negotiations since the early 1990s.  The IPCC compiles no comparable factual record on national fossil fuel production. The head of the body’s Science Committee cannot recall a single instance in which it talked about limiting the production of fossil fuels, Marshall reports. It’s a seemingly obvious and overriding concern, something that might – in a rational world – have moved to the forefront of public and scientific climate change consciousness after an incident like Deepwater Horizon. We cannot process, sell, and burn the fossil fuels without first finding those fuels and digging and pumping them out of the ground. Thanks to the obsession with tailpipe over wellhead and minehead, it is left to officially marginalized “radical environmentalists” to make the connection between exploration, drilling, and mining on one hand and processing, sale, and actual burning on the other.

The term “radical” is ironic. What could be more conservative than efforts to preserve the world’s still vast stock (big enough to push Earth well past livability) of fossil fuels to sustain prospects for decent life? The relentless drive to push oil and gas extraction past the point of no return to decently livable ecology in the outward name of growth and in the hidden pursuit of profit is radical indeed: radically irresponsible and catastrophic.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

The Nature and Mission of U.S. Corporate Mass Media

31/10/15 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, September 30, 2015

A significantly shorter version of this paper was delivered in Havana, Cuba on April 7, 2015

“Homeland” Distortion
Consistent with its possession as a leading and money-making asset of the nation’s wealthy elite, the United States corporate and commercial mass media is a bastion of power-serving propaganda and deadening twaddle designed to keep the U.S. citizenry subordinated to capital and the imperial U.S. state. It regularly portrays the United States as a great model of democracy and equality. It sells a false image of the U.S. as a society where the rich enjoy opulence because of hard and honest work and where the poor are poor because of their laziness and irresponsibility.  The nightly television news broadcasts and television police and law and order dramas are obsessed with violent crime in the nation’s Black ghettoes and Latino barrios, but they never talk about the extreme poverty, the absence of opportunity imposed on those neighborhoods by the interrelated forces of institutional racism, capital flight, mass structural unemployment, under-funded schools, and mass incarceration. The nightly television weather reports tells U.S. citizens of ever new record high temperatures and related forms of extreme weather but never relate these remarkable meteorological developments to anthropogenic climate change.

The dominant corporate U.S. media routinely exaggerates the degree of difference and choice between the candidates run by the nation’s two corporate-dominated political organizations, the Democrats and the Republicans. It never notes that the two reigning parties agree about far more than they differ on, particularly when it comes to fundamental and related matters of business class power and American Empire. It shows U.S. protestors engaged in angry confrontations with police and highlights isolated examples of protestor violence but it downplays peaceful protest and never pays serious attention to the important societal and policy issues that have sparked protest or to the demands and recommendations advanced by protest movements.

As the prolific U.S. Marxist commentator Michael Parenti once remarked, US “Newscasters who want to keep their careers afloat learn the fine art of evasion…with great skill they skirt around the most important parts of a story.  With much finesse, they say a lot about very little, serving up heaps of junk news filled with so many empty calories and so few nutrients.  Thus do they avoid offending those who wield politico-economic power while giving every appearance of judicious moderation and balance. It is enough to take your breath away.”[1]

Selling Empire
U.S. newscasters and their print media counterparts routinely parrot and disseminate the false foreign policy claims of the nation’s imperial elite. Earlier this year, U.S. news broadcasters dutiful relayed to U.S. citizens the Obama administration’s preposterous assertion that social-democratic Venezuela is a repressive, corrupt, and authoritarian danger to its own people and the U.S. No leading national U.S. news outlet dared to note the special absurdity of this charge in the wake of Obama and other top U.S. officials’ visit to Riyadh to guarantee U.S. support for the new king of Saudi Arabia, the absolute ruler of a leading U.S. client state that happens to be the most brutally oppressive and reactionary government on Earth.

In U.S. “mainstream” media, Washington’s aims are always benevolent and democratic.  Its clients and allies are progressive, its enemies are nefarious, and its victims are invisible and incidental. The U.S. can occasionally make “mistakes” and “strategic blunders” on the global stage, but its foreign policies are never immoral, criminal, or imperialist in nature as far as that media is concerned. This is consistent with the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism,” according to which the U.S., alone among great powers in history, seeks no selfish or imperial gain abroad. It is consistent also with “mainstream” U.S. media’s heavy reliance on “official government sources” (the White House, the Defense Department, and the State Department) and leading business public relations and press offices for basic information on current events.

As the leading Left U.S. intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman showed in their classic text Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), Orwellian double standards are rife in the dominant U.S. media’s coverage and interpretation of global affairs. Elections won in other countries by politicians that Washington approves because those politicians can be counted on to serve the interests of U.S. corporations and the military are portrayed in U.S. media as good and clean contests. But when elections put in power people who can’t be counted on to serve “U.S. interests,” (Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro for example), then U.S. corporate media portrays the contests as “rigged” and “corrupt.” When Americans or people allied with Washington are killed or injured abroad, they are “worthy victims” and receive great attention and sympathy in that media. People killed, maimed, displaced and otherwise harmed by the U.S. and U.S. clients and allies are anonymous and “unworthy victims” whose experience elicits little mention or concern.[2]

U.S. citizens regularly see images of people who are angry at the U.S. around the world. The dominant mass media never gives them any serious discussion of the US policies and actions that create that anger. Millions of Americans are left to ask in childlike ignorance “Why do they hate us? What have we done?”

In February of 2015, an extraordinary event occurred in U.S. news media – the firing of a leading national news broadcaster, Brian Williams of NBC News.  Williams lost his position because of some lies he told in connection with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A naïve outsider might think that Williams was fired because he repeated the George W. Bush administration’s transparent fabrications about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s supposed connection to 9/11.  Sadly but predictably enough, that wasn’t his problem. Williams lost his job because he falsely boasted that he had ridden on a helicopter that was forced down by grenade fire during the initial U.S. invasion.  If transmitting Washington’s lies about Iraq were something to be fired about, then U.S. corporate media authorities would have to get rid of pretty much of all their top broadcasters.

More than Entertainment  
The U.S. corporate media’s propagandistic service to the nation’s reigning and interrelated structures of Empire and inequality is hardly limited to its news and public affairs wings. Equally if not more significant in that regard is that media’s vast “entertainment” sector, which is loaded with political and ideological content but was completely ignored in Herman and Chomsky’s groundbreaking Manufacturing Consent.[3] One example is the Hollywood movie Zero Dark Thirty, a 2012 “action thriller” that dramatized the United States’ search for Osama bin-Laden after the September 11, 2001 jetliner attacks. The film received critical acclaim and was a box office-smash. It was also a masterpiece of pro-military, pro-CIA propaganda, skillfully portraying U.S. torture practices “as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America” (Glenn Greenwald[4]) and deleting the moral debate that erupted over the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Under the guise of a neutral, documentary-like façade, Zero Dark Thirty normalized and endorsed torture in ways that were all the more effective because of its understated, detached, and “objective” veneer.  The film also marked a distressing new frontier in U.S. military-“embedded” filmmaking whereby the movie-makers receive technical and logistical support from the Pentagon in return for producing elaborate public relations on the military’s behalf.

The 2014-15 Hollywood blockbuster American Sniper is another example. The film’s audiences is supposed to marvel at the supposedly noble feats, sacrifice, and heroism of Chris Kyle, a rugged, militantly patriotic, and Christian-fundamentalist Navy SEALS sniper who participated in the U.S. invasion of Iraq to fight “evil” and to avenge the al Qaeda jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001. Kyle killed 160 Iraqis over four tours of “duty” in “Operational Iraqi Freedom.” Viewers are never told that the Iraqi government had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks or al Qaeda or that the U.S. invasion was one of the most egregiously criminal and brazenly imperial and mass-murderous acts in the history of international violence. Like Zero Dark Thirty’s apologists, American Sniper’s defenders claim that the film takes a neutral perspective of “pure storytelling,” with no ideological bias. In reality, the movie is filled with racist and imperial distortions, functioning as flat-out war propaganda.[5]

These are just two among many examples that could be cited of U.S. “entertainment” media’s regular service to the American Empire. Hollywood and other parts of the nation’s vast corporate entertainment complex plays the same power-serving role in relation to domestic (“homeland”) American inequality and oppression structures of class and race.[6]

Manufacturing Idiocy
Seen broadly in its many-sided and multiply delivered reality, U.S. corporate media’s dark, power-serving mission actually goes further than the manufacture of consent. A deeper goal is the manufacture of mass idiocy, with “idiocy” understood in the original Greek and Athenian sense not of stupidity but of childish selfishness and willful indifference to public affairs and concerns.  (An “idiot” in Athenian democracy was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private instead of public affairs.). As the U.S. Latin Americanist Cathy Schneider noted, the U.S.-backed military coup and dictatorship headed by Augusto Pinochet “transformed Chile, both culturally and politically, from a country of active participatory grassroots communities, to a land of disconnected, apolitical individuals”[7] – into a nation of “idiots” understood in this classic Athenian sense.

In the U.S., where violence is not as readily available to elites as in 1970s Latin America, corporate America seeks the same terrible outcome through its ideological institutions, including above all its mass media. In U.S. movies, television sit-coms, television dramas, television reality-shows, commercials, state Lottery advertisements, and video games, the ideal-type U.S. citizen is an idiot in this classic sense: a person who cares about little more than his or her own well-being, consumption, and status. This noble American idiot is blissfully indifferent to the terrible prices paid by others for the maintenance of reigning and interrelated oppressions structures at home and abroad.

A pervasive theme in this media culture is the notion that people at the bottom of the nation’s steep and interrelated socioeconomic and racial pyramids are the “personally irresponsible” and culturally flawed makers of their own fate.  The mass U.S. media’s version of Athenian idiocy “can imagine,” in the words of the prolific Left U.S. cultural theorist Henry Giroux “public issues only as private concerns.”  It works to “erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” questions of racial and socioeconomic disparity to “private issues of …individual character and cultural depravity. Consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature,” it portrays the only barriers to equality and meaningful democratic participation as “a lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” and bad personal choices by the oppressed.  Government efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) societal disparities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and the like are portrayed as futile, counterproductive, naïve, and dangerous.[8]

To be sure, a narrow and reactionary sort of public concern and engagement does appear and take on a favorable light in this corporate media culture. It takes the form of a cruel, often even sadistically violent response to unworthy and Evil Others who are perceived as failing to obey prevalent national and neoliberal cultural codes.  Like the U.S. ruling class that owns it, the purportedly anti-government corporate media isn’t really opposed to government as such.  It’s opposed to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. It celebrates and otherwise advances the “right hand of the state”[9]: the portions of government that serve the opulent minority, dole out punishment for the poor, and attacks those perceived as nefariously resisting the corporate and imperial order at home and abroad. Police officers, prosecutors, military personnel, and other government authorities who represent the “right hand of the state” are heroes and role models in this media.  Public defenders, other defense attorneys, civil libertarians, racial justice activists, union leaders, antiwar protesters and the like are presented at best as naïve and irritating “do-gooders” and at worst as coddlers and even agents of evil.

The generation of mass idiocy in the more commonly understood sense of sheer stupidity is also a central part of U.S. “mainstream” media’s mission. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the constant barrage of rapid-fire advertisements that floods U.S. corporate media. As the American cultural critic Neil Postman noted thirty years ago, the modern U.S. television commercial is the antithesis of the rational economic consideration that early Western champions of the profits system claimed to be the enlightened essence of capitalism.  “Its principal theorists, even its most prominent practitioners,” Postman noted, “believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well-informed, and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest.” Commercials make “hash” out of this idea. They are dedicated to persuading consumers with wholly irrational claims.  They rely not on the reasoned presentation of evidence and logical argument but on suggestive emotionalism, infantilizing manipulation, and evocative, rapid-fire imagery.[10]

The same techniques poison U.S. electoral politics.  Investment in deceptive and manipulative campaign commercials commonly determines success or failure in mass-marketed election contests between business-beholden candidates that are sold to the audience/electorate like brands of toothpaste and deodorant. Fittingly enough, the stupendous cost of these political advertisements is a major factor driving U.S. campaign expenses so high (the 2016 U.S. presidential election will cost at least $5 billion) as to make candidates ever more dependent on big money corporate and Wall Street donors.

Along the way, mass cognitive competence is assaulted by the numbing, high-speed ubiquity of U.S. television and radio advertisements. These commercials assault citizens’ capacity for sustained mental focus and rational deliberation nearly sixteen minutes of every hour on cable television, with 44 percent of the individual ads now running for just 15 seconds.  This is a factor in the United States’ long-bemoaned epidemic of “Attention Deficit Disorder.”

Seventy years ago, the brilliant Dutch left Marxist Anton Pannekoek offered some chilling reflections on the corporate print and broadcast media’s destructive impact on mass cognitive and related social resistance capacities in the United States after World War II:

“The press is of course entirely in hands of big capital [and it]…dominates the spiritual life of the American people. The most important thing is not even the hiding of all truth about the reign of big finance.  Its aim still more is the education to thoughtlessness.  All attention is directed to coarse sensations, everything is avoided that could arouse thinking.  Papers are not meant to be read – the small print is already a hindrance – but in a rapid survey of the fat headlines to inform the public on unimportant news items, on family triflings of the rich, on sexual scandals, on crimes of the underworld, on boxing matches.  The aim of the capitalist press all over the world, the diverting of the attention of the masses from the reality of social development, nowhere succeed with such thoroughness as in America.”

“Still more than by the papers the masses are influenced by broadcasting and film. These  products of most perfect science, destined at one time to the finest educational instruments of mankind, now in the hands of capitalism have been turned into the strongest means to uphold its rule by stupefying the mind. Because after nerve-straining fatigue the movie offers relaxation and distraction by means of simple visual impressions that make no demand on the intellect, the masses get used to accepting thoughtlessly all its cunning and shrewd propaganda.  It reflects the ugliest sides of middle-class society.  It turns all attention either to sexual life, in this society – by the absence of community feelings and fight for freedom – the only source of strong passions, or to brute violence; masses educated to rough violence instead of to social knowledge are not dangerous to capitalism…”[11]

Pannekoek clearly saw an ideological dimension (beyond just diversion and stupefaction) in U.S. mass media’s “education to thoughtlessness” through movies as well as print sensationalism.  He  would certainly be impressed and perhaps depressed by the remarkably numerous, potent, and many-sided means of mass distraction and indoctrination that are available to the U.S. and global capitalist media in the present digital and Internet era.

The “entertainment” wing of its vast corporate media complex is critical to the considerable “soft” ideological “power” the U.S. exercises around the world even as its economic hegemony wanes in an ever more multipolar global system (and as its “hard” military reveals significant limits within and beyond the Middle East).  Relatively few people beneath the global capitalist elite consume U.S. news and public affairs media beyond the U.S., but “American” (U.S.) movies, television shows, video games, communication devices, and advertising culture are ubiquitous across the planet.

Explaining “Mainstream” Media

Corporate Ownership
There’s nothing surprising about the fact that the United States’ supposedly “free” and “independent” media functions as a means of mass indoctrination for the nation’s economic and imperial elite.  The first and most important explanation for this harsh reality is concentrated private ownership – the fundamental fact that that media is owned primarily by giant corporations representing wealthy interests who are deeply invested in U.S. capitalism and Empire. Visitors to the U.S. should not be fooled by the large number and types of channels and stations on a typical U.S. car radio or television set or by the large number and types of magazines and books on display at a typical Barnes & Noble bookstore.  Currently in the U.S., just six massive and global corporations – Comcast, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS, The News Corporation and Disney – together control more than 90 percent of the nation’s print and electronic media, including cable television, airwaves television, radio, newspapers, movies, video games, book publishing, comic books, and more. Three decades ago, 50 corporations controlled the same amount of U.S. media.

Each of the reigning six companies is a giant and diversified multi-media conglomerate with investments beyond media, including “defense” (the military).  Asking reporters and commentators at one of those giant corporations to tell the unvarnished truth about what’s happening in the U.S. and the world is like asking the company magazine published by the United Fruit Company to the tell the truth about working conditions in its Caribbean and Central American plantations in the 1950s. It’s like asking the General Motors company newspaper to tell the truth about wages and working conditions in GM’s auto assembly plants around the world.
As the nation’s media becomes concentrated into fewer corporate hands, media personnel become ever more insecure in their jobs because they have fewer firms to whom to sell their skills. That makes them even less willing than they might have been before to go outside official sources, to question the official line, and to tell the truth about current events and the context in which they occur.

A second explanation is the power of advertisers. U.S. media managers are naturally reluctant to publish or broadcast material that might offend the large corporations that pay for broadcasting by purchasing advertisements. As Chomsky has noted in a recent interview, large corporations are not only the major producers of the United States’ mass and commercial media.  They are also that media’s top market, something that deepens the captivity of nation’s supposedly democratic and independent media to big capital:

“The reliance of a journal on advertisers shapes and controls and substantially determines what is presented to the public…the very idea of advertiser reliance radically distorts the concept of free media. If you think about what the commercial media are, no matter what, they are businesses. And a business produces something for a market. The producers in this case, almost without exception, are major corporations. The market is other businesses – advertisers. The product that is presented to the market is readers (or viewers), so these are basically major corporations providing audiences to other businesses, and that significantly shapes the nature of the institution.”[12]

At the same time, both U.S. corporate media managers and the advertisers who supply revenue for their salaries are hesitant to produce content that might alienate the affluent people who count for an ever rising share of consumer purchases in the U.S.  It is naturally those with the most purchasing power who are naturally most targeted by advertisers.

Government Policy
A third great factor is U.S. government media policy and regulation on behalf of oligopolistic hyper-concentration. The U.S. corporate media is hardly a “natural” outcome of a “free market.” It’s the result of government protections and subsidies that grant enormous “competitive” advantages to the biggest and most politically/plutocratically influential media firms. Under the terms of the 1934 Communications Act and the 1996 Telecommunications Act, commercial, for-profit broadcasters have almost completely free rein over the nation’s airwaves and cable lines.  There is no substantive segment of the broadcast spectrum set aside for truly public interest and genuinely democratic, popular not-for profit media and the official “public” broadcasting networks are thoroughly captive to corporate interests and to right-wing politicians who take giant campaign contributions from corporate interests.  Much of the 1996 bill was written by lobbyists working for the nations’ leading media firms.[13]

A different form of state policy deserves mention. Under the Obama administration, we have seen the most aggressive pursuit and prosecution in recent memory of U.S. journalists who step outside the narrow parameters of pro-U.S. coverage and commentary – and of the whistleblowers who provide them with leaked information. That is why Edward Snowden lives in Russia, Glenn Greenwald lives in Brazil, Chelsea Manning is serving life in a U.S. military prison, and Julian Assange is trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.  A leading New York Times reporter and author, James Risen, has been threatened with imprisonment by the White House for years because of his refusal to divulge sources.

Treetops v. Grassroots Audiences
In this writer’s experience, the critical Left analysis of the U.S. “mainstream” media as a tool for “manufacturing consent” and idiocy developed above meets four objections from defenders of the U.S. media system, A first objection notes that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times (FT), the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and other major U.S. corporate media outlets produce a significant amount of, informative, high-quality and often candid reporting and commentary that Left thinkers and activists commonly cite to support their cases for radical and democratic change. Left U.S. media critics like Chomsky and Herman are said to be hypocrites because they obviously find much that is of use as Left thinkers in the very media that they criticize for distorting reality in accord with capitalist and imperial dictates.

The observation that Leftists commonly use and cite information from the corporate media they harshly criticize is correct but it is easy to account for the apparent anomaly within the critical Left framework by noting that that media crafts two very different versions of U.S. policy, politics, society, “life,” and current events for two different audiences. Following the work of the brilliant Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey, we can call the first audience the “grassroots.”[14] It comprises the general mass of working and lower-class citizens. As far as the business elites who own and manage the U.S. mass media and the corporations that pay for that media with advertising purchases are concerned, this “rabble” cannot be trusted with serious, candid, and forthright information.  Its essential role in society is to keep quiet, work hard, be entertained (in richly propagandistic and ideological ways, we should remember), buy things, and generally do what they’re told.  They are to leave key societal decisions to those that the leading 20th century U.S. public intellectual and media-as-propaganda enthusiast Walter Lippman called “the responsible men.”  That “intelligent,” benevolent, “expert,” and “responsible” elite (responsible, indeed, for such glorious accomplishments as the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, the Great Recession, global warming, and the rise of the Islamic State) needed, in Lippman’s view, to be protected from what he called “the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd.”[15] The deluded mob, the sub-citizenry, the dangerous working class majority is not the audience for elite organs like the Times, the Post, and the Journal.

The second target group comprises the relevant political class of U.S. citizens from at most the upper fifth of society. This is who reads the Times, the Post, WSJ, and FT, for the most part. Call this audience (again following Carey) the “treetops”: the “people who matter” and who deserve and can be trusted with something more closely approximating the real story because their minds have been properly disciplined and flattered by superior salaries, significant on-the-job labor autonomy, and “advanced” and specialized educational and professional certification. This elite includes such heavily indoctrinated persons as corporate managers, lawyers, public administrators, and (most) tenured university professors. Since these elites carry out key top-down societal tasks of supervision, discipline, training, demoralization, co-optation, and indoctrination – all essential to the rule of the real economic elite and the imperial system – they cannot be too thoroughly misled about current events and policy without deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the dominant social and political order. They require adequate information and must not be overly influenced by the brutal and foolish propaganda generated for the “bewildered herd.” At the same time, information and commentary for the relevant and respectable business and political classes and their “coordinator class” servants and allies often contains a measure of reasoned and sincere intra-elite political and policy debate – debate that is always careful not to stray beyond narrow U.S. ideological parameters. That is why a radical Left U.S. thinker and activist can find much that is of use in U.S. “treetops” media. Such a thinker or activist would, indeed, be foolish not to consult these sources.

 “P”BS and N”P”R
A second objection to the Left critique of U.S. “mainstream” media claims that the U.S. public enjoys a meaningful alternative to the corporate media in the form of the nation’s Public Broadcasting Service (television) and National Public Radio (NPR). This claim should not be taken seriously. Thanks to U.S. “public” media’s pathetically weak governmental funding, its heavy reliance on corporate sponsors, and its constant harassment by right wing critics inside and beyond the U.S. Congress, N”P”R and “P”BS are extremely reluctant to question dominant U.S. ideologies and power structures.

The tepid, power-serving conservatism of U.S. “public” broadcasting is by longstanding political and policy design.  The federal government allowed the formation of the “public” networks only on the condition that they pose no competitive market or ideological challenge to private commercial media, the profits system, and U.S. global foreign policy. “P”BS and N”P”R are “public” in a very limited sense. They not function for the public over and against corporate, financial, and imperial power to any significant degree.

“The Internet Will Save Us”
A third objection claims that the rise of the Internet creates a “Wild West” environment in which the power of corporate media is eviscerated and citizens can find and even produce all the “alternative media” they require.  This claim is misleading but it should not be reflexively or completely dismissed.  In the U.S. as elsewhere, those with access to the Internet and the time and energy to use it meaningfully can find a remarkable breadth and depth of information and trenchant Left analysis at various online sites. The Internet also broadens U.S. citizens and activists’ access to media networks beyond the U.S. – to elite sources that are much less beholden of course to U.S. propaganda and ideology. At the same time, the Internet and digital telephony networks have at times shown themselves to be effective grassroots organizing tools for progressive U.S. activists.

Still, the democratic and progressive impact of the Internet in the U.S. is easily exaggerated.  Left and other progressive online outlets lack anything close to the financial, technical, and organizational and human resources of the corporate news media, which has its own sophisticated Internet. There is nothing in Left other citizen online outlets that can begin to remotely challenge the “soft” ideological and propagandistic power of corporate “entertainment” media. The Internet’s technical infrastructure is increasingly dominated by an “ISP cartel” led by a small number of giant corporations. As the leading left U.S. media analyst Robert McChesney notes:
“By 2014, there are only a half-dozen or so major players that dominate provision of broadband Internet access and wireless Internet access.  Three of them – Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast – dominate the field of telephony and Internet access, and have set up what is in effect a cartel.  They no longer compete with each other in any meaningful sense.  As a result, Americans pay far more for cellphone and broadband Internet access than most other advanced nations and get much lousier service…These are not ‘free market’ companies in any sense of the term.  Their business model, going back to pre-Internet days, has always been capturing government monopoly licenses for telephone and cable TV services.  Their ‘comparative advantage’ has never been customer service; it has been world-class lobbying.’ [16]

Along the way, the notion of a great “democratizing,” Wild West” and “free market” Internet has proved politically useful for the corporate media giants.  The regularly trumpet the great Internet myth to claim that the U.S. public and regulators don’t need to worry about corporate media power and to justify their demands for more government subsidy and protection. At the same time, finally, we know from the revelations of Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and others that the nation’s leading digital and Internet-based e-mail (Google and Yahoo), telephony (e.g. Verizon), and “social network” (Facebook above all) corporations have collaborated with the National Security Agency and with the nation’s local, state, and federal police in the surveillance of U.S. citizens’ and activists’ private communications.[17]

The fourth objection accuses Left media critics of being overly negative, “carping” critics who offer no serious alternatives to the nation’s current corporate-owned corporate-managed commercial and for-profit media system.  This is a transparently false and mean-spirited charge. Left U.S. media criticism is strongly linked to a smart and impressive U.S. media reform movement that advances numerous and interrelated proposals for the creation of a genuinely public and democratically run non-commercial and nonprofit U.S. media system.  Some of the demand and proposals of this movement include public ownership and operation of the Internet as a public utility; the break-up of the leading media oligopolies; full public funding of public broadcasting; limits on advertising in commercial media; the abolition of political advertisements; the expansion of airwave and broadband access for alternative media outlets; publically-funded nonprofit and non-commercial print journalism; the abolition of government and corporate surveillance, monitoring, and commercial data-mining of private communication and “social networks.”[18] With regard to the media as with numerous other areas, we should recall Chomsky’s sardonic response to the standard conservative claim that the Left offers criticisms but no solutions: “There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’”[19]

A False Paradox
The propagandistic and power-serving mission and nature of dominant U.S, corporate mass media might seem ironic and even paradoxical in light of the United States’ strong free speech and democratic traditions.  In fact, as Carey and Chomsky have noted, the former makes perfect sense in light of the latter. In nations where popular expression and dissent is routinely crushed with violent repression, elites have little incentive to shape popular perceptions in accord with elite interests.  The population is controlled primarily through physical coercion. In societies where it is not generally considered legitimate to put down popular expression with the iron heel of armed force and where dissenting opinion is granted a significant measure of freedom of expression, elites are heavily and dangerously incentivized to seek to manufacture mass popular consent and idiocy.  The danger is deepened by the United States’ status as the pioneer in the development of mass consumer capitalism, advertising, film, and television. Thanks to that history, corporate America has long stood in the global vanguard when it comes to developing the technologies, methods, art, and science of mass persuasion and thought control.[20]

It is appropriate to place quotation marks around the phrase “mainstream media” when writing about dominant U.S. corporate media.  During the Cold War era, U.S. officials and media never referred to the Soviet Union’s state television and radio or its main state newspapers as “mainstream Russian media.” American authorities referred to these Russian media outlets as “Soviet state media” and treated that media as means for the dissemination of Soviet “propaganda” and ideology. There is no reason to consider the United States’ corporate and commercial media as any more “mainstream” than the leading Soviet media organs were back in their day.  It is just as dedicated as the onetime Soviet state media to advancing the doctrinal perspectives of its host nation’s reigning elite—and far more effective.

Its success is easily exaggerated, however. To everyday Americans’ credit, corporate media has never been fully successful in stamping out popular resistance and winning over the hearts and minds of the U.S. populace.  A recent Pew Research poll showed that U.S. “millennials” (young adults 18-29 years old) have a more favorable response to the word “socialism” than to “capitalism” – a remarkable finding on the limits of corporate media and other forms of elite ideological power in the U.S.  The immigrant worker uprising of May 2006, the Chicago Republic Door and Window plant occupation of 2008, the University of California student uprisings of 2009 and 2010, the Wisconsin public worker rebellion in early 2011, the Occupy Movement of late 2011, and Fight for Fifteen (for a $15 an hour minimum wage) and Black Lives Matter movements of 2014 and 2015 show that U.S. corporate and imperial establishment has not manufactured anything like comprehensive and across the board mass consent and idiocy in the U,S. today. The U.S. elite is no more successful in its utopian (or dystopian) quest to control every American heart and mind than it is in its equally impossible ambition of managing events across a complex planet from the banks of the Potomac River in  Washington D.C. The struggle for popular self-determination, democracy, justice, and equality lives on despite the influence of corporate media.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
1.Michael Parenti, Contrary Notions (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2007), 7.

2. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988), 37-86, 87-142.

3. For elaboration, see Paul Street, “More Than Entertainment,” Monthly Review, Vol. 51, No. 9 (February 2000); Paul Street, “Beyond Manufacturing Consent,” TeleSur English, March 27, 2015, ; Paul Street. “Reflections on a Forgotten Book: Herbert Schiller’s The Mind Managers {1973),” ZNet  (April 5, 2009),

4. Glen Greenwald, “Zero Dark Thirty: CIA Hagiography, Pernicious Propaganda,” The Guardian (UK,). December 14, 2012.

5. For elaboration, see Paul Street, “Hollywood’s Service to Empire,” Counterpunch (February 20-22, 2015),

6. For two remarkable in depth studies, see Stephen Macek, Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); William J. Puette, Through Jaundiced Eyes: How the Media View Organized Labor (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1992).

7. Cathy Schneider, “The Underside of the Miracle,” NACLA Report on the Americas, 26 (1993), no.4, 18-19.

8. Henry A. Giroux, The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2003); Henry A. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).

9. Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance (New York, NY: Free Press, 1998), 2, 24-44; John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (London: Verso, 2002), 5, 116.

10. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1983), 127-128; Noam Chomsky, Power Systems (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 80.

11. Anton Pennekoek, Workers Councils (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003 [1946]), 127-128.

12.  “Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Look at Twitter Because it Doesn’t Tell Me Anything,’” interview of Noam Chomsky by Seung-yoon Lee, Byline (April 14, 2015),

13. For a richly researched historical treatment of U.S. media policy, see the following works by the United States’ leading Left media policy critic and analyst Robert W. McChesney: Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1933 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (New York: Seven Stories, 1997); Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (New York: New Press, 2000).

14. Alex Carey, Taking the Risks Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 89-93.

15. Clinton Rossiter and James Lare, The Essential Lippman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 90-91.

16. Robert W. McChesney, “Sharp Left Turn for the Media Reform Movement: Toward a Post-Capitalist Democracy,” Monthly Review, Vol. 65, Issue 9 (February 2014),

17. Essential here is Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (New York: Metropolitan, 2014).

18. McChesney, “Sharp Left Turn;” “The State of Media and Media Reform;” Robert W. McChesney, Blowing the Roof Off the 21st Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for a Post-Capitalist Democracy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014), 139-59.

19. Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006), 262.

20. Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. 11-14, 133-139l Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), Chapter 12: “Force and Opinion,” 351-406; Street, “Reflections on a Forgotten Book.”

Bad History: Bernie Sanders’ Specious Take on Barack Obama’s “Big Mistake”

31/10/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, September 25, 2015

Leftish Democrats can’t seem to stop quoting something the nominal “democratic socialist” and (to use an old but in this case accurate Lenninist term) “social chauvinist” Bernie Sanders has been saying about Barack Obama since at least last May. Here’s a useful synopsis of Sanders’ take on Obama from an interview he did two weeks ago on MSDNC, I mean on MSNBC:

“I happen to have a lot of respect and affection for Barack Obama. Obama’s biggest political mistake that he made is after his brilliant campaign in 2008 was that he basically said to the millions of people who supported him, ‘thanks for getting me elected, I will take it from here.’ I will not make that mistake. If I`m elected president, trust me, we`ll be directly involved and working with millions of people who will tell the billionaire class their day is over, they`re not going to get it all. They`re going to start paying their fair share of taxes. We are going to create millions of jobs. We are going to raise the minimum wage. Wall Street will pay a tax on speculation whether they like it or not because millions of people now will be involved in the political process.”

A similar but more elaborate version of Sanders’ Obama breakdown appeared in in an interview he did with the Des Moines Register Star three weeks ago:

“In 2008, Barack Obama ran one of the great campaigns in the history of the U.S.A. A brilliant campaign, an extraordinary campaign, he rallied the American people. But what happened the day after he was elected? Essentially, in so many words, he said ‘Thank you, America for electing me, I’ll take it from here.  I believe that I can sit down, I can negotiate with John Boehner, I can negotiate with Mitch McConnell.  I think they’re fair people and I think we can reach some decent compromises.’ Now, he was wrong in two regards.  These guys never had any intention of seriously negotiating with him and they set more obstructionism than at any point in modern American history.  But second point, given the powers of corporate America and the large campaign donors, you cannot change America unless millions of people are standing behind you, and that is the difference between me and Barack Obama. It is not just, ‘vote for me, I have great ideas.’ It’s ‘you are going to have to be with me the day after the election. Its vote for me because I can’t do it alone.’” [1]

There are five very basic and serious problems with Sanders’ take on Obama’s “mistakes”:

1 No self-respecting and actual leftist should “have a lot respect and admiration for Barack Obama.” Consistent with his longstanding “vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal” (Adolph Reed, Jr. 1996) worldview (that is pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street, and state-capitalist) – honed at Columbia University, Harvard Law, the University of Chicago, the foundation world, and the corporate-financialist Hamilton Project – Obama has betrayed progressive- and populist-sounding campaign rhetoric (indispensable for elections but highly dispensable in making policy) and his “progressive base” from the beginning of his presidency and indeed his political career. The list of those Obama has thrown under the runaway buses of neoliberal capitalism, military empire, and white supremacy is impressive. His resume of perfidy includes:

*the labor movement, betrayed and abandoned on global trade, labor law reform, the Wisconsin rebellion, and the wage- and job-slashing terms of the much-ballyhooed auto bailout.

*environmentalists, abandoned and betrayed on offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing, global carbon emission reduction-efforts, green jobs programs, and more.

*civil libertarians, abandoned and betrayed on Guantanamo, rendition, warrantless wiretaps, secret kills lists, whistleblower protection, domestic drones, the infiltration of protest organizations, and more.

*health care activists, abandoned and betrayed on single-payer, drug prices, and affordable care in general.

*the antiwar community, betrayed by Obama’s provocative wars, militarism, bellicosity, and militarism in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, Eastern Europe, Asia, and (last but not least) Africa.

*Black America, which voted in record numbers for the first technically black president but has gotten nothing from the all-too post-racial Obama as he has presided over the greatest reduction in Black net worth in modern U.S. history.

The main victims of Obama’s predictable and in fact predicted[2] deceptions have not been activists but the broad populace, which has seen wealth and power concentrated yet further upward during his “hope” and “change” administrations. (There is, of course, one group of Americans who have clearly escaped the bus wheels in the Age of Obama: the very predominantly white corporate and financial elite. “Despite all the criticism that President Obama has received lately from Wall Street,” the New Yorker’s perceptive economics writer John Cassidy noted in November of 2010 (the same month when the Tea Party Republican Party took back the U.S. House in the absurd name of fighting “Obama socialism”), “the Administration has largely left the great money-making machine intact. A couple of years ago, firms such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs faced the danger that the government would break them up, drive them out of some of their most lucrative business lines – such as dealing in derivatives – or force them to maintain so much capital that that their profits would be greatly diminished…” None of these things – all supported by technically irrelevant majority-progressive public opinion – materialized, reflecting the moneyed elite’s success in defining “realistic” policy options for a president who wanted a second term.)

2. The always corporate-sponsored, neoliberal, imperial, and white-pleasing Barack Obama and his handlers (David Alexrod, David Plouffe and others) did not run a wonderful and well intentioned progressive campaign. They conducted a deeply manipulative big money marketing operation that seduced millions of progressive-leaning Americans into falsely thinking that they were joining a popular movement for social-democratic change by casting a ballot for a smooth-talking and telegenic candidate who – unbeknownst to most voters – was owned by the nation’s corporate, financial, and imperial wealth and power elite. The “deeply conservative” (Larissa MacFarquhar in the The New Yorker in the May of 2007) essence of the candidate and his agenda was evident to anyone who looked beneath the misleading imagery and branding. It was understood by the historically deleted John Edwards campaign, which predicted that a “corporate Democrat[ic]” Obama presidency would do precisely what Sanders accuses it of having done: trying to solve the nation’s problems by “sitting down at a big negotiating table with Big Business and the Republicans” (a strategy that Edwards said would fail since corporate America and the GOP would “eat everything at the table”). It’s not for nothing that Advertising Age hailed the Barack Obama campaign as the “Marketer of the Year” in 2008.

3 The newly elected Obama did not really say “okay I’ll take it from here.” He said “it’s about you” (about the people) and then kept “it” (presidential politics and policy) in the hands of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire: the Wall Street and Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) crowd. The nation’s wealth and power elite deeply influenced and indeed permeated his campaign, his transition team, and his cabinet. The ruling class had every reason to expect a conservative neoliberal and imperial presidency, which arose on the basis of record-setting campaign contributions from Wall Street. Two and a half weeks after Obama’s victory in the 2008 election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and member of the CFR, commented on the president-elect’s corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times, was following “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” Obama’s cabinet was loaded with elite agents of corporate and imperial power. Leading players include Defense Secretary and Iraq warrior Robert Gates, carried over from the Bush administration. National Security Advisor James Jones is a former NATO commander known for advocating increased U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil resources. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a leading Iraq War hawk who approved a Bush plan to attack Iran in late 2007. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was a leading pro-war and “pro-Israel,” anti-Palestinian Democrat during his congressional career and had been a front man for the North American Free Trade Agreement in the Clinton White House. Obama’s top economic advisor Lawrence Summers was a leading corporate-neoliberal economist and an architect during the 1990s of the financial deregulation that contributed so significantly to the 2008 economic crisis. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was a Wall Street-approved expert in bailing out large and parasitic financial institutions. Obama’s claim that he would provide the “vision” to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a “progressive” direction is like a baseball manager claiming that he’s going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed, 280-pound power hitters.

Tellingly enough, even mildly progressive U.S. economists like Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz were blacklisted from the Obama administration. These unradical but left-of-center economists were too much for the Wall Street 1 Percenters who held sway in “socialist” Obama administration.

For economic direction, the new White House preferred regressive corporate-neoliberal hacks associated with Goldman Sachs and with the pro-business economic think tank the Hamilton Project. John R. MacArthur, the president of Harper’s magazine, noted in late March that Summers and Geithner “were “in place precisely to prevent real reform of a banking system that helped put Obama in the White House” (the Providence Journal, March 19, 2009).

3 It was not really a “political mistake” for Obama to fail to mobilize and empower rank and file progressive citizens and movements. As Jon Schwarz explained on The Intercept last June:

“It’s unlikely that Obama’s demobilization of his supporters was actually a ‘mistake.’ As [early Obama strategist Marshall] Ganz put it in 2010, Obama saw his supporters ‘like a tiger you can’t control’; Ganz speculated that the president’s real goal was simply to ‘keep the machine on for the next election.’ In other words, Obama was acting in accordance with what I like to call ‘The Iron Law of Institutions’ — that is, the people in charge of institutions (as Obama was in charge of the Democratic party and his ‘movement’ in 2009) care first and foremost about their own power within the institution, rather than the power of the institution itself….So while the Democratic party itself would have been much more powerful overall if Obama had kept his grassroots mobilized and involved, Obama himself and his most important donors and supporters would have been less powerful within the Democratic party. So Obama let the enthusiasm and activism surrounding his candidacy dissipate, all his supporters stayed home in 2010 and Obama’s party suffered a catastrophic collapse….But from Obama’s perspective, so what? As Boies Penrose, an early 20th-century Republican senator from Pennsylvania, said when he was told that his slate of anti-reform candidates would lose and destroy the GOP: ‘Yes, but I’ll preside over the ruins.’”

Obama hasn’t merely failed to sustain and organize grassroots movements and honor their wishes. He has coldly ignored and actively repressed such movements when they arose. Recall that Obama refused to offer even mild “bully pulpit” support for the remarkable public worker uprising against right-wing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in early 2011. Obama’s Department of Homeland Security engaged in active coordination of the repression of the Occupy Wall Street movement across the country later the same year.

Obama’s hostility to popular and social movements and organizing is a “mistake” only if one foolishly assumes that the “deeply conservative” and “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” Obama is actually a left-leaning progressive. He is no such thing and never was.

5 “Republican obstructionism” is a convenient and misleading cover for Obama’s deep corporate-financial conservatism – one that ignores Obama’s and the dismal demobilizing dollar Dems’ own central role in the empowerment of the right. The notion that the great supposed wannabe people’s president Obama has been powerless to act on his supposed noble and progressive ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party and its big money and big media (FOX News et al.) backers does not hold up to the record of Obama’s critical first year in office. That first year suggests very strongly Obama had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things he promised on the campaign trail – things that were well within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and onetime Obama fan Thomas Frank observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”) if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures. It would also have been “good politics,” highly popular with the nation’s mostly white working class majority, something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.” The financial crisis “worked out the way it did” – with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever – “in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way…When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years,” the early Obama enthusiast Frank had the decency to admit (though without acknowledging his past hopey-changey-ness), “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the [liberal] apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.”[3]

Never mind that the privilege-friendly corporate Democratic Obama year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of supposedly ultra-radical writers and activists (myself included) futilely tried to warn Frank and other liberals about from very beginning of the Obama Syndrome. In any event, there’s no “perhaps” and “maybe” about it.

The Republican obstructionism that followed Obama’s “squandered” opening 20 months needs to be understood as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Republicans wouldn’t have had their great Tea Party movement takeover of Congress in 2010 if Obama had actually governed in accord with the progressive and populist sentiments of the citizenry instead of the dictates of the nation’s corporate and financial masters.

And what did the Republicans obstruct – the single-payer health insurance, the break-up and/or nationalization (or even just serious regulation) of Wall Street, the financial transaction tax, the dramatically increase minimum wage (to $15 an hour), the large –scale green jobs programs, the re-legalization of union organizing, the free college tuition, the serious attack on climate change, the seriously progressive taxation, and the progressive renegotiation of “free trade” (investor rights) agreements that Bernie Sanders is calling for this year, all receiving majority support in public opinion surveys? The significant rollback of the nation’s gargantuan military budget and global imperial footprint in preference for “peace dividend” social spending that most Americans have long supported and that the imperial-social chauvinist Sanders does NOT seriously embrace (tragically enough since his ambitious progressive domestic agenda is crippled without massive transfers from the military-Keynesian budget to social-Keynesian expenditure)? Hardly! No, Obama met Republican hindrance on a corporatist health care “reform” that only the big six insurance companies and Big Pharma could love and that he took from the Republican Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts – and on other mild Big Business-friendly measures that fell far short of progressive by any meaningful historical measure.

There is perhaps some noble, sincerely progressive, left-leaning, and social-democratic content in Sanders’ notion that no U.S. president could enact seriously democratic domestic without a mass popular movement in place to help him battle the corporate and financial powers that be. But why jump into the latest and next big money-big media-major party and candidate-centered quadrennial electoral extravaganza in the absence of such a movement in the first place? Why dedicated one’s eloquence and energy to major party electoralism and the inherently narcissistic, personality-fixated pursuit of higher office instead of to actual popular, rank-and-file movement building beneath and beyond the staggered, corporate-managed election spectacles? Why channel popular energies into the Democratic Party, the timeworn graveyard of social movements? And here’s a further and (sorry) depressing thought: Sanders’ claim that he cannot undertake serious policy moves against corporate America may well have a dark and victim-blaming side. It leaves the door open for a Sanders’ presidency (very much a long shot) to justify its inevitable deep accommodations with the powers that be with the claim that the people didn’t make him be more progressive.


1 If you listen to the Register Star interview closely at 12 seconds in you can hear Sanders clearly pronouncing Obama’s name as “Barack Obomber” – an appropriate term given Obama’s long history of bombing, drone-attacking, and otherwise lethally assaulting people across the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa.

2 For my own efforts in that regard, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).

3 For a heavily annotated record of Obama’s corporate, imperial, eco-cidal, and objectively white-supremacist performance during his first 15 months in office, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010).

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

What Color is Your T-Shirt? Race, Class, Empire, and White Democrats in a Liberal Campus Town

31/10/15 0 COMMENTS

Black Agenda Report, September 22, 2015

Join the Political Revolution”

American liberal and “progressive” Democrats often inhabit insular, white, and middle class worlds that dull their appreciation of the broader oppression systems of class, race, and empire that shape their privileged lives and those of less fortunate people, many of whom live in remarkably invisible proximity to them. Take the liberal, tree-lined Midwestern university town of Iowa City, seat of Johnson County, Iowa and home to the University of Iowa. Obama-Biden bumper stickers are still plastered across the backs of recent model Volvos, Audis, and Priuses here in the absurdly nicknames “People’s Republic of Johnson County.”

Many white liberals and progressives here are excited about two recent developments said by some of them to represent great victories for “the working class.” The first development is the recent passage by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors of a county-wide minimum wage scheduled to be set at $10 an hour in 2017. The second development is the supposedly surprising success of the nominal socialist Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Sanders seems likely to win Iowa City and Johnson County in the Iowa Democratic Party’s presidential Caucus next January and has pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Walking past a recent high-priced Farmers’ Market in downtown Iowa City, I saw a number of smug white people strutting around in white t-shirts saying “Bernie 2016: Join the Political Revolution.”

A Pittance Already Granted

It would be interesting to see some of these white middle class campus town progressive Democrats (hereafter referred to as “WMCPs”) come out in their white Bernie t-shirts to the Procter&Gamble (P&G) plant located across Highway 6 from mostly Black apartment complexes (including the “Dolphin Square” development) and the mostly white and Latino working-class “Bon Air” Trailer Park out on the Southeast side of town. The WMCPs could arrive at shift change times to try to explain to that factory’s production workers why they should feel grateful and excited about these purportedly remarkable developments.

Clad in bright-red long-sleeved t-shirts and steel-tipped boots, most of these workers are immigrants. They are primarily African, mostly Sudanese and Congolese. There is also a good Mexican contingent along with some folks from the Caribbean and a smattering of whites.

Let’s start with the county wage ordinance. The WMCPs wouldn’t get very far boasting about that in the P&G parking lot. Part of the problem there would be that the red-shirted workers already make $10 an hour on the company’s first production shift (6am-2pm), $10.85 on the second shift (2-10 pm), and nearly $12 an hour on the third shift (10-pm-6am) on the P&G production lines. Many of the blue-collar (well, red-shirt) jobs in the plant pay more. And from my recent sample of the bottom end of the labor market in Iowa City, $10 an hour and up is already pretty well established around town. For what it’s worth, I recently saw a Help Wanted poster advertising $10 an hour outside a local fast food restaurant – a Panda Express.

Another and perhaps bigger problem would be the very elementary fact that (as I have shown in a previous essay) $10 an hour is a pittance compared to the real cost of living in and around Iowa City. The Economic Policy Institute’s carefully calculated minimally adequate “basic family budget” for just one parent and one kid in Iowa City is more than 240 % of what someone can make at $10 an hour with full time year round work.

It wouldn’t help that the region’s largest employer, the University of Iowa, will be exempt from the wage ordinance while local Johnson County towns will be free to opt out.

On top of all this, the biggest difficulty (beyond the often grim and alienating nature of the work they have to perform) for people at the bottom end of the Iowa City labor market isn’t so much the hourly rate as the struggle for regular and full-time work across the week, month, year – and even the day (it is not uncommon for workers who have arrived expecting eight hours of work or more on a given day to be sent home early because P&G managers have run out of product.)

The workers at P&G and in numerous other workplaces across Johnson County can be forgiven if they have failed to break into applause upon hearing about the recent wage ordinance.

Empire Man

What about the Bernie Sanders “revolution”? Here I’m afraid the WMCPs would make even less headway. Mention Sanders’ name to the region’s largely immigrant industrial workers and you will receive blank stares of ignorance and indifference. Many of the WMCPs might find that sad, but I think it is richly appropriate. Sanders has aligned himself with the U.S. and Western imperial and white-supremacist project that generates chaos and endless poverty and misery in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, compelling millions to seek jobs, security, and safety in the United States and Europe. He has long demonstrated support for the American military empire and (especially when the U.S. President is a Democrat) its wars, its giant budgetary appropriations (equivalent to 54% of all federal discretionary spending), its vast intelligence and surveillance apparatus – and for Israel’s ongoing war of terror against its Palestinian subjects and neighbors. As the World Socialist Website (WSW) has accurately observed, “Sanders is a longtime proven defender of US imperialism, not a half-hearted or inconsistent opponent.”

Sanders recently told ABC News that if elected president he will not end Barack Obama’s arch-criminal and mass-murderous drone program in the Middle East. He said he would maintain the targeted killing campaign but suggested he would adjust the program so that “drones don’t kill innocent people.” If they were bothering to listen, the owners and managers of the military-industrial complex that Sanders falsely claims to “fight” were pleased.

Also disturbing is Sanders’ call for the murderous, arch-reactionary, and jihad-fueling, Wahhabist dictatorship of Saudi Arabia to “get its hands dirty” and boost its military profile to “save the soul of Islam.” It’s rather bizarre for a self-proclaimed progressive and “democratic socialist” to call for more intervention by the brutally repressive Saudi monarchy. Six months of “relentless and seemingly indiscriminate bombing” by the Saudis have killed more than 4000 people, most of them civilians, in Yemen, helping (along with tears of U.S. drone attacks) create there a humanitarian calamity in one of the world’s poorest nations. “This is the world that a President Sanders promises” Yemen and other Arab nations, Ajamu Baraka notes: “continued war crimes from the sky with [U.S.] drone strikes and Saudi-led terror in support of the Western imperial project.”

It’s about race as well as class and empire. The primary targets and the victims of the American military Empire and its clients and allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and the Islamic jihadists whose reach and power has been dramatically expanded by the U.S.-led global war of/on terror are nonwhite, predominantly Muslim people in the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia.

Militarizing Africa

The workers at P&G, to be sure, are not Syrians or Yeminis – not yet anyway. But both Sudan and the Congo are countries in which the United States has instigated long wars, consistent with its broader program of destabilization across Africa. As Nick Turse shows in his latest book Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, the U.S. military has dramatically expanded its disruptive presence in Africa during this century, most especially under Obama. At least 8000 U.S. troops and mercenaries train, arm, and fight along with and against African militaries and rebel groups in practically every African nation, including Sudan and Congo. The Pentagon has constructed a far-flung network of bases, airports, water routes, intelligence outposts, and arms caches across the “dark continent.” Thanks to the Bush43 and particularly the Obama44 administration’s “militarization of Africa” – replete with airstrikes, commando raids, drone strikes, “black ops” missions, proxy wars, special ops, spying, joint war-making, troop training, and more – the United States is widely perceived by Africans as the leading threat to peace on Earth. And Sanders is all for the global war of terror policies that fuel that reasonable perception. The Sudanese and growing Congolese communities in eastern Iowa bear the marks of trauma resulting from the chaos that Uncle Sam has done so much to engender in their homelands.

All Kinds of People”

What about the U.S. providing a refuge for the victims of the U.S. and Western global imperial and neoliberal project in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, including Latin America (where U.S. trade, “security,” and [“war on”] drug policy has long generated millions of migrants seeking work and freedom in the U.S.)? In an online interview this summer, Sanders was asked about his views on immigration by former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein. “You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view,” Klein said. “I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders interrupted sharply to say, “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal….That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… It would make everybody in America poorer. You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state,” Sanders continued, “and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that…. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour. That would be great for them… You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those [American] kids?” Here again those nasty boys over at the WSW merit quotation:

“Sanders’ argument that open borders would ‘make everybody in America poorer’ takes for granted the enforced division between American and immigrant workers and the super-exploitation of the latter. It also implicitly accepts as permanent the continued monopolization of wealth in the US by a tiny financial aristocracy. The expropriation of this parasitic social layer would, in and of itself, provide substantial resources to raise the wages and living standards of all workers in the US, native-born and immigrant alike…By promoting economic nationalism and protectionism, Sanders implicitly argues in favor of American workers lining up behind ‘their’ bosses and government against workers of other countries. So much for his supposed hostility to the American ‘billionaire class!…While Democratic politicians, along with their agents in the trade union bureaucracy, have long utilized the supposed threat of foreign labor to whip up nationalist sentiment within the working class, Sanders takes this position to its logical conclusion, openly promoting the sanctity of the American nation state…The implications of this position are profoundly reactionary. Sanders’…suggestion that immigrants pose a threat to the American nation state recalls the type of arguments and slogans utilized in Germany during the Nazi period. These included the notion of ‘überfremdung’—the inundation of the Fatherland by foreign, non-Aryan elements.”

“The democratic right of workers to live and work wherever they choose is a basic principle of socialism. It is bound up with opposition to nationalism, which is the essential ideology of the bourgeoisie, and promotion of internationalism, i.e., the recognition of the fundamental identity of interests of all workers, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion or gender, and the struggle to unite workers across national borders against their common exploiters, the capitalists of all countries.”

Indeed. And beneath the nationalism in Sanders’ opposition to increased immigration lay an undeniable racial sub-text. When Sanders says that “open borders” would “bring in all kinds of people,” there should be no doubt that he is referring mainly to people of color from Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East – the “kinds of people” who are doing the lion’s share of the most difficult and low-paid work at the P&G plant in Iowa City (not so low-paid as to fall below the supposedly wonderful new minimum wage in Johnson County, however).

Bernie Sanders is No Jeremy Corbin

In this as in other ways, Sanders should not be over-identified with the newly elected leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbin. Just hours after his resounding victory, Corbyn strongly supported desperate Middle Eastern and African migrants at a pro-refugee rally in London. He had told his Labour backers that his “first action…as leader…would be to come to a demonstration in support of refugees, the right to asylum and the human needs of people all over the world.” He said he was “beyond appalled at the way so many media…describe desperate people in desperate situations as ‘the problem.’ They’re victims of war. They’re victims of environmental degradation. They’re victims of poverty. They’re victims of human rights abuses all over the world. We have a responsibility as one of many countries that signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Right to Asylum.” When questioned about the refugee crisis in Europe, by contrast, Sanders seemed to have a hard time acknowledging its existence, much less the multiple victimizations noted by Corbin.

Also unlike Sanders, Corbyn opposes the Western imperial and neoliberal policies that do so much to fuel forced and “voluntary” migration to the U.S. and Europe in the first place. So did Corbyn’s fellow social democrat Hugo Chavez, who the U.S. attempted in 2002 to remove from his position as the democratically elected president of Venezuela (with no known protest from Bernie Sanders). It is ironic that Sanders recently and dismissively referred to Chavez as “a dead communist dictator.” If not for Washington’s longstanding opposition to real and alleged communist leaders like Chavez, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Salvador Allende (murdered by the CIA and Chilean military on September 11, 1973), and Patrice Lumumba (the Congo’s first and anti-imperial prime minister after independence, murdered by the CIA in 1961) and the national independence and populist movements such leaders represent, Latin America and Africa would probably not provide floods of “all kinds of people” to compete with North Americans for jobs in the U.S capitalist job market – and to help deflect the population’s anger away from “the billionaire class” Sanders denounces on the campaign trail.

Hope in Harreld?

Last year I ran across two white junior high school students wearing bright red Che Guevara t-shirts at the Java House coffee shop in downtown Iowa City. They were waiting for two expensive iced coffee concoctions at the shop’s brew bar. “So,” I said, “are you guys communist revolutionaries?” The bigger of the two boys’ eyes lit up as he replied eagerly: “I wish!”

There is some radical hope for some of Iowa City’s white middle class liberals, perhaps. The Big Business-friendly and Republican-leaning University of Iowa Board of Regents has just crassly fast-track-installed Bruce Harreld, a former Boston Chicken and IBM “turnaround executive” as University of Iowa president. They did so over 97 percent faculty opposition. Layoffs and salary cuts seem likely for the local professoriat and other professional staff.

Maybe some of Harreld’s future refugees will be donning red t-shirts (maybe someday even Che-emblazened ones) on the production lines at P&G. It could prove very educational for them. It could also perhaps be helpful for the workers: people with some advanced foreign language background and training – Arabic, French, and Spanish above all – could provide some useful service towards building a movement to bring factory wages somewhat closer to the actual cost of living in and around Iowa City. And a movement for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called near the end of his life “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters: “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” The leftmost Sandernistas might want to tell their less radical Bernie 2016 cohorts that serious socialists have always sought a social, not merely a political revolution: a great popular uprising that leads to a radical transformation in underlying social relations and conditions, not just a shift in the names, color, or labels of political elites. “Brand Bernie,” Vivek Jain recently wrote me, “helps the ruling class banalize revolution.” That’s a little harsh, but there’s something to it. Call me crazy, but I’m counting on Bruce Harreld to spark some of the WMCPs to become less banal and more social and radical in their use of the term.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA. His publications include Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).


America’s “Good” Black Syndrome: Race, Class, and Somebody-ness

31/10/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, September 16, 2015

“The United States,” the left historian Lawrence Shoup reminds us, “is a particular type of class society, a racialized one, where some groups are stigmatized as inferior because of their race, a belief spreading to all segments of society. One this oppressive idea becomes widespread, the resulting divisions within the working class can be used by the rulers to divide and conquer, preventing unity among the workers…In this system, class realities are largely downplayed or completely avoided in public discourses, and racial and gender issues are highlighted. The capitalist class always wants to highlight differences and divisions within the underlying population” (Lawrence Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014, Monthly Review Press, 2015, p.26).

The “Good” and Bourgeois Black Syndrome

But just as race cuts across class, fostering divisions that prevent the working class majority from uniting against the capitalist 1 Percent, the more invisible division of class cuts across race to both temper and deepen the savagery of racial stigma and abuse. How is it that technically Black public personalities like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama can win enthusiastic endorsement from millions of white Americans who couldn’t care less about the vast mass of Black Americans who live in abject poverty and under the heel of the deep institutional racism that permeates the nation’s educational, labor market, health-care, real estate, finance, and (of special recent attention) criminal justice systems? Part of the explanation for this seeming paradox is that Winfrey, Obama, and other white-pleasing Black elites have milked the timeworn role of the “good Negro.” They refuse to confront racism to any significant and substantive degree. They embody and advance the notion that Black Americans are disproportionately poor, jobless, unhealthy, incarcerated, and criminally marked largely because of poor and working class Blacks’ own “bad choices” and culture.

The Winfreys and Obamas are presented as examples of how Blacks can succeed in the “post-racial” U.S. by “dropping the angry [race] attitude” (throwing Jeremiah Wright under the bus) and casting down their buckets to move up in the American “opportunity” system. Their success is taken as proof that racism no longer poses serious obstacles to Black advancement and equality in a “color blind” nation that no longer requires protests against white privilege. And they are happy to explicitly reinforce the message. They blame “Cousin Pookie” (Obama’s darkly humorous term of derision for poor and allegedly lazy Black women on welfare) for her own poverty and diabetes and to refrain from noting that their own success might smack of tokenism and racial divide and rule. They know why Booker T. Washington got invited to the Theodore Roosevelt White House and W.E.B. Du Bois did not.

Another part of the explanation is that Obama, Winfrey, Booker, Powell and their ilk carry the emoluments of class privilege attained through success in professional and political (Obama and Powell) or commercial (Winfrey) endeavors. Under the hidden codes of class, that exempts them from the same degree of harsh treatment imposed on lower- and working-class Blacks, who carry the double and mutually reinforcing burdens of race and class with special weight.

Obama’s Anger Reserved for a Fellow Harvard Man

Obama internalized the rules and sensed the opportunities early on. That’s why his onetime close personal minister – the indignantly anti-racist and anti-imperialist Wright – had to be erased from his past (along with Black poet and former Communist Frank Davis, who mentored the young Obama to some degree in Honolulu, and is not in fact an invention of the paranoid right).

What murderous white police or security guard action against a Black American has alone provoked the nation’s first technically Black president to exhibit visible public anger over racist police abuse? The murder of Trayvon Martin? Of Mike Brown? Of Eric Garner? Of Freddie Gray? Of John Deng, gunned down by a white sheriff’s deputy in the Obama-mad campus town of Iowa City on July 1st, 2009 (eliciting little white liberal interest)? Of Milton Hall, openly executed by six police officers in a shopping center parking lot in Saginaw, Michigan on July 1st, 2012? Of any of the many hundreds of mostly lower and working class Black Americans who are murdered by police officers, security guards, and vigilantes each year in the “color-blind” and “post-racial” U.S.?

No, Obama only became briefly and visibly upset over police misconduct in the summer of 2009. That’s when he complicated his own press conference on corporatist health care “reform” by venting (three weeks after the slaughter of Deng) over a white Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer’s treatment of a bourgeois Black Harvard academic arrested after becoming irate when the officer responded to a call from a neighbor who saw the academic and his Black driver breaking into the academic’s home. The absent-minded professor who had forgotten his house key was none other than Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, who makes “P”BS documentaries that blame poor Blacks for their own position at the bottom of the nation’s steep combined socioeconomic and racial pyramids.

In subsequent years, Obama has lectured lower and working class Blacks on their duty to “respect the rule of law” in the wake of racist police killings and of the official exonerations of the killers.

“Finally Somebody’s Saying Something”

All of which brings us to the white racist New York City police officer James Frascatore, who has just recently lost his badge and gun. Three years ago, according to one complaint, Frascatore pulled over a Black man in Queens for a broken taillight. Frascatore opened up the driver’s car door and punched him three times in the mouth, unprovoked.

Two years ago, Frascatore beat another Black Queens man, Warren Diggs, in his driveway during a minor drug arrest. By a recent, belated New York Times’ account:

“Officer Frascatore and two other police officers followed Mr. Diggs as he rode his bike home from a bodega at night, and then stopped him in his driveway and asked for identification…When he began walking into his home to get it, an officer grabbed him from behind while Officer Frascatore punched him in his right temple…He collapsed, and then Officer Frascatore threw himself down on his legs and continued to pummel him. ‘I’m getting hit all on my side and my back, said Mr. Diggs, 39, a handyman. “I’m screaming for my wife to come outside then I just start screaming, Help!’ …Another officer sprayed Mace into his face. The officer who grabbed him hooked a forearm around his neck and began to choke him, he said. ‘I’m saying: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”’ Mr. Diggs recalled. …Mr. Diggs was charged with marijuana possession and resisting arrest, he said. His wife was charged with tampering with evidence when she took his bicycle inside the house. He said their daughter, then 12, and son, then 9, wept hysterically. Charges were eventually dismissed.”

In four years, Frascatore has in four years been the subject of five excessive force and racial profiling complaints – more complaints than 90 percent of NYPD officers get over their entire careers.

So why is Frascatore currently under suspension? For “manhandling a biracial celebrity” (the Times) – the Black former tennis star James Blake – during a mistaken arrest outside a fashionable hotel in midtown Manhattan last week. Smooth and soft-spoken, the affluent, Harvard-educated Blake was thrown to the ground with Frascatore’s knee lodged in his back. The incident was captured on surveillance video. Blake has called for the NYPD to make a “significant financial commitment” to officer retraining around issues of racial sensitivity.

Frascatore’s earlier victim Warren Diggs told the New York Post that he wasn’t surprised by the Blake incident. “This guy needed to go a long time ago . . . He likes putting his hands on people,” Diggs said. “Hopefully, [Blake is] in a better position to do something about it so that he won’t be able to get away with it anymore” (emphasis added).

“I don’t know what that dude’s problem is but I’m glad it finally came to somebody who someone would listen to,” Diggs told the Times, “Finally, somebody’s saying something, and somebody’s listening” (emphasis added).

But let’s be clear. Diggs sued Frascatore and the NYPD in 2013, to no avail. He lodged a complaint with the NYPD Civilian Complaint Review Board the same year. He has said something. So have four other victims of Frascatore’s racist abuse, including one Black person (Stefon Luckey) who noted that Frascatore called him a “fucking nigger” while beating him.

Frascatore especially likes to put his hands on Black people. He got in trouble in the James  Blake case only because Blake is more of a “somebody” than an official nobody handyman like Diggs. Blake got listened to because he has a “better” elite class position and credentials, something Diggs lacks in the racialized class society that is the United States. Like Obama and Gates, Blake is a Harvard man, something that goes a long way in the corporate media.

The Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in the wake of the Mike Brown killing must be about both race and class at one and the same time, recognizing that the lack of “somebody”-ness that racism imposes on Black people is magnified with special viciousness by the intimately related malady of classism that is generalized across society. In this as in other ways, race and class are joined at the dialectical hip on numerous levels in the racialized class society that is the U.S. today.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

ISIS is US: the Empire and the Evil Genie It Released

31/10/15 0 COMMENTS

Counterpunch, September 14, 2015

Picturing Papal Petrification

The reigning politics and media culture of the United States is not without moments of high comic relief. Three weeks ago, for example, CNN’s Chris Cuomo presented the buffoonish Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with a bizarre hypothetical situation. What would Trump do, Cuomo asked, if he met the Pope and the pontiff expressed his opinion that capitalism can be “a real avenue to greed, it can be really toxic and corrupt.”

Trump didn’t miss a beat. “I’d say ISIS wants to get you,” Trump said. “You know that ISIS wants to go in and take over the Vatican? You have heard that. You know, that’s a dream of theirs, to go into Italy.”

“He talks to you about capitalism, you scare the pope?” Cuomo asked.

“I’m gonna have to scare the Pope because it’s the only thing,” Trump said. “The Pope, I hope, can only be scared by God. But the truth is — you know, if you look at what’s going on — they better hope that capitalism works, because it’s the only thing we have right now. And it’s a great thing when it works properly.”

Funny stuff. It doesn’t get much wackier than that. Forget for now the notion that that capitalism is a wonderful “thing” when it is functioning “properly,” whatever that means. And never mind whether or not ISIS chiefs dream of claiming St. Peter’s Square for Islamic jihad (maybe they do).

ISIS as Imperial Blowback

Let’s look instead at Trump’s suggestion that the Pope would do well to stop mouthing off about the profits system because he needs to get under the protective umbrella of the U.S. against the Islamic State. Trump’s balderdash aside, the notion that the U.S. is the leading and true enemy of ISIS is widely assumed across the U.S., thanks in part to the properly working propagandistic mechanisms of dominant U.S. corporate war, election, and entertainment media.

The notion is false. In reigning US mass media, ISIS is presented as a great cloud of Islamo-extremist evil that mysteriously and shockingly arose out of thin air last year.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

That ISIS a grisly and terrible threat cannot be seriously doubted. With its horrifying snuff films, its genocidal practices towards Shiite Muslims, Christians, and “polytheists,” and its arch-reactionary social codes imposed through whippings, limb-chopping, beheadings, stoning, eye-gouging, the shooting of children for minor infractions, and its sexual enslavement of women, ISIS is most definitely extremist and perversely evil. The danger has reached critical mass. As Diana Johnstone notes:

“Armed by leftover U.S. military equipment in Iraq, enriched by illicit oil sales, its ranks swollen by young Jihadis from all over the world, the Islamic State threatens the people of Lebanon and Jordan, already struggling to take care of masses of refugees from Palestine, Iraq and now Syria. Fear of the decapitating Islamic fanatics is inciting more and more people to risk everything in order to get to safety in Europe….The Islamic State is truly the horrible enemy caricature of the ‘Jewish State.’ another political entity based on an exclusive religious identity. Like Israel it has no clearly defined borders, but with a vastly larger potential demographic base.”

Whence this stark and borderless evil, driving a massive refugee crisis that has Western media up in moral arms? ISIS is, among other things, a predictable “blowback” consequence of United States wars on Iraq and Syria. Had the United States and its partners in imperial crime not illegally attacked and invaded Iraq in 2003, more than a million people would be alive today and ISIS and other al Qaeda offshoots would not be terrifying millions into fleeing the Middle East and North Africa. As the British foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn notes, “the movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.” The first war collapsed Iraq state authority and took the lid off the nation’s fierce ethno-religious and sectarian divisions. The U.S. fueled those divisions and Sunni uprisings against the corrupt and sectarian Shia government it set up in Baghdad. It produced droves of martyrs killed by US “Crusaders” in places like Fallujah, a Sunni city the US Marines targeted for near destruction (replete with the bombing of hospitals and the use of radioactive ordnance that created an epidemic of child cancer and leukemia) in 2004 – a town ISIS took over last year. Funny how Western media never seemed terribly upset about the millions of refugees created by U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

But just as the sectarian war that fed ISIS’s horrific emergence was retreating in Iraq, it was reignited when al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, found new soil in which to blossom in neighboring Syria. The US, Europe, and their Middle Eastern allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates) kept a vicious civil war going against Syria’s Assad regime though it was clear from 2012 on that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon. The US-sponsored war in Syria became the fertile, blood-soaked breeding ground for ISIS’s expansion on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, something the crooked and incompetent US-backed government in Baghdad was powerless to prevent.

Other recent U.S. policies have fed the extraordinary growth of extreme jihadism modeled on al Qaeda and ISIS. The US-led NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 helped turn that country into a breeding ground for ISIS and related jihadist movements. Thanks in no small part to Obama’s deadly drone, bomb, and other attacks around the Muslim world (the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize has bombed at least seven Muslim countries so far), the US has helped advance civil war and Sunni, al Qaeda- and ISIS-inspired jihad across the Middle East and North Africa. Washington has generated an expansion of Salafist terror and extremism beyond the wildest dreams of Osama bin-Laden, who was irrelevantly killed by Obama’s beloved Special Forces in May of 2011. As Johnstone notes:

“The results of this madness are washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean. Images and sentiment have replaced thinking about causes and effects. One photo of a drowned toddler causes a media and political uproar. Are people surprised? Didn’t they know that toddlers were being torn to pieces by U.S. bombing of Iraq, by U.S. drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen? What about the toddlers obliterated by NATO’s war to ‘free Libya’ from its ‘dictator’? The current refugee crisis in Europe is the inevitable, foreseeable, predicted result of Western policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Gaddafi’s Libya was the wall that kept hundreds of thousands of Africans from migrating illegally to Europe, not only by police methods but even more effectively by offering them development at home and decently paid jobs in Libya. Now Libya is the source both of economic migrants and of refugees from Libya itself, as well as from other lands of desperation. In order to weaken Sudan, the United States (and Susan Rice in particular)-championed creation of the new country of South Sudan, which is not a country at all but the scene of rival massacres driving more and more fugitives toward unwelcoming countries.”

Cold War and Neoliberal Origins

In reality, the United States’ complicity, along with its satellites and allies, in the rise of ISIS, goes back to the late Cold War era. As Cockburn notes in his important book The Rise of the Islamic State; ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso, 2015), the key moment for the rise of political Sunni jihad was 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution turned Iran into a Shia theocracy. In the summer of 1979, the Jimmy Carter White House secretly granted massive military support to fundamentalist tribal groups known as the mujahidin, direct forebears of al-Qaeda and ISIS.  During the 1980s, a critical and remarkably durable partnership was formed between the United States, Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. This alliance has been a leading prop of US power in the Middle East. It has also “provided a seed plot for jihadist movements, out of which Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda was originally only one strain,” Cockburn notes.

Among the many fundamentalist Sunnis recruited to fight in Afghanistan by the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence agency (the ISI) was none other than Osama bin-Laden. A son of the Saudi elite, bin-Laden was the architect of the 9/11/2001 jetliner attacks, a predictable “blowback” from the United States’ longstanding mass-murderous actions and presence (Google up “Highway of Death” and “Iraqi children killed by US economic sanctions”) in the Arab and Muslim worlds. The al Qaeda attacks on the US “homeland” gave the George W. Bush administration cover and false pretext for the invasion that ironically brought jihadist Sunni rebellion and ultimately ISIS to Iraq (where al Qaeda had no real presence under Saddam). “The shock of 9/11,” Cockburn observes “provided a Pearl Harbor moment in the U.S. when public revulsion and fear could be manipulated to implement a preexisting neoconservative agenda by targeting Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq. A reason for waterboarding al Qaeda suspects was to extract confessions implicating Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia in the attacks.” Bad information was precisely the point of the torture!

The full history of the United States’ role in the creation of ISIS goes back even further. Since the dawn of the Cold War, the United States has lent its considerable power to the defeat of left and secular nationalism across the Middle East.  As the Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar noted nine years ago, “when Arab nationalism, Nasserism and similar trends began to crumble [under US pressure] in the 1970s, most governments used Islamic fundamentalism [with US encouragement and assistance] as a tool to counter whatever remnants there were of the left or of secular nationalism.” Along with this came the U.S.-led “neoliberal turn of the last quarter century” – the spread of alienating capitalist and commercial forces and values. “Neoliberal globalization,” Achcar explained, “has brought about the disintegration of the social fabric and of social safety nets.”  This led to widespread social disarray and anxiety, fueling “violent assertions of ‘identity,’ extremism or fanaticism….religious [and/] or political…”

Washington “let [the]…genie out of the bottle….The combination of their own repression of progressive or secular ideologies and the subjective failure – the bankruptcy of these ideologies, aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union – left the ground open to the only the ideological channel of anti-Western protest available, which was Islamic fundamentalism” – itself long “tolerated and even used and encouraged by the local regimes and by the United States,” Achcar wrote.

None of all this essential historical background makes it into “mainstream” US media and politics culture. That makes it impossible for the typical American who relies on that culture for information on world events to respond to the rise of ISIS with anything but clueless surprise and astonished horror of the kind that supports yet more of the same imperial policy that has done so much to create the horrific nightmare.

Choosing ISIS and the Saudi Kingdom Over Assad and Iran – in the Name of Democracy

Thirty-six years after Jimmy Carter decided to arm jihad in Afghanistan, the fanatical ISIS stands as the ultimate armed and dangerous Islamist genie out of the bottle. Who can halt the expansion of its maniacal rule over all of Mesopotamia and beyond? Only the Syrian State headed by Bashar al Assad, with assistance from Russia and the Islamic State’s blood enemy Iran. “The choice,” Johnstone rightly reminds us, “is not between Assad and ‘Western democracy.’ The choice is between Assad and the Islamic State.” But the West, with Washington calling the tune, still vows that “Assad must go.” It prefers the spread and contagion of Islamist chaos over the rational resolution of the crisis – and not just in the Middle East but across Africa. Washington absurdly warns Russia against “escalating the conflict in Syria” by providing Assad military assistance to help Syria fight jihadists. Meanwhile it maintains close relations and undertakes joint military and intelligence operations with its client states Saudi Arabia (the most reactionary government on Earth), Pakistan, and Turkey, all key sponsors of Salafist jihad.

The U.S. prefers to keep the dark genie out and about like never before. The Empire’s jihad-fueling policy is based on what Johnstone called “the tacit assumption that civil war would be better for the people of those countries than living under a ‘dictatorship.’ In practice, however,” Johnston adds, “most people can get along better without a vote than without a roof over their heads. Or without their heads.”

Justification and Pretext for What Uncle Sam Does Best

It is naïve to think that all of this madness was unanticipated by the architects and planners of U.S. global policy. Destabilization is Washington’s tool and game in a time when America’s long-lost economic-capitalist hegemony is fading at an ever accelerating pace (China has emerged as the leading foreign economic-developmental force in Africa by far) and U.S. global power relies on military muscle above all. As Eric Draitser notes, destabilization “provides the justification and pretext for expanded US military engagement, precisely what [Washington policy planners] wanted all along.” Military engagement and “blowing shit up” (including whole nations, regions, societies, and civilizations) are what Uncle Sam does best. It also and not just coincidentally consistent with the nuclear-armed US client and ally Israel’s murderous and timeworn Middle Eastern strategy of divide and rule.

And, as the Pope might well tell The Donald, causing Trump to acknowledge the pontiff’s wisdom perhaps, more military engagement means more profits for high-tech “defense” (empire) contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. “The costs of empire,” Noam Chomsky reminded us in 1969, “are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within.” American state military-Keynesian capitalism, such as it is, goes hand in hand with ISIS – and the al Nusra Front, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia, Jemaah Islamiah, Abu Sayyaf, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, and all the rest. ISIS et. al. help that capitalism work quite well for America’s corporate masters of war.

ISIS is US, something Trump seems to have at least partly grasped in his own preposterous, pope-pricking way: “problems with capitalism? Scare the world with grave threats that require U.S. military power [never mind that U.S. Empire created the threats in the first place]. That’s how to make America great again!”

Rosa Luxembourg got it right: it was socialism or barbarism. Adding in the problem of climate change, the Pope appears to agree with Istvan Meszaros’ ecological update of Rosa for the warming 21st century: “or barbarism if we’re lucky.” But that’s another essay.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

Bernie and the Donald

31/10/15 0 COMMENTS

teleSur English, September 12, 2015

United States voters could provide bases for more than the nation’s two reigning state-capitalist political organizations – the Republicans and the Democrats – if the country moved to a multiparty political and elections system. Imagine an expansion to four relevant parties, including one to the democratic-socialist left of the Democrats and one to the proto-fascist right of the Republicans. For the people who would stay with the Democrats, look at presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s backers and those who might support Joe Biden. For the people who would stay with the Republicans, look at those who support establishment Republican candidates Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie.

For many who would join the new Left party, look at the very liberal and left-leaning Democrats who are turning out for Bernie Sanders’ big rallies against the wealth and rule of “the billionaire class” in the U.S. They would be joined by others to their left, including many people of color, under a system in which the leftmost party could break (as the Democratic Party and Sanders today cannot) from support for U.S. military empire and white privilege deeply understood.

As for the imaginary new right party, it would include many of those who back arch-reactionary contenders like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum. But the best place to see this ugly base in action is a Donald Trump rally. There you behold thousands of angry middle and working class whites cheering a militaristic, misogynist, eco-cidal, and proudly anti-intellectual brute who claims he will “make America great again” by facing down “our enemies” and building a giant wall to protect “real Americans” from murderous “illegal immigrants” and their nationally illegitimate “anchor babies.” The Trump sensation carries a serious whiff of neo-fascistic white-nationalism.

But back to the really existing U.S. party system. Sanders’ hopey-changey enthusiasts like to cite polls showing that Bernie trumps “The Donald” in mock head-to-head elections. Of course he does: Sanders’ positions and rhetoric are consistent with longstanding majority-progressive, left-leaning public opinion in the U.S. The loutish billionaire Trump has a remarkable 60 percent plus “unfavorable” rating among registered voters (Sanders’ favorable rating is unusually high, by contrast).

But so what? Sanders and Trump won’t be facing off in November of 2016. Neither of the two big “outsider” stories of the U.S. presidential campaign at this early stage can win their party’s nomination. At first blush, Trump’s chances might seem better than Sanders’. The Donald is leading the Republican candidate pack in the polls, while Hillary Clinton maintains a considerable polling margin over Sanders (most of the latest polls have Hillary besting Bernie 50 to 25 among likely Democratic voters). The Republican establishment candidate field is split between a large number of candidates, with none of the top three (Bush, Walker, and Rubio) showing much popularity, whereas the Democratic establishment and money congealed around Hillary some time ago (though there is admittedly now some apparently serious talk about a late entry by Vice President Biden, who polls at 15%). And of course, the nation’s corporate media predictably hangs on media celebrity Trump’s every idiotic and random word and gesture while it goes to remarkable lengths to ignore and downplay the significance of Sanders’ carefully constructed progressive campaign.

In reality, however, Trump’s chances of becoming the GOP nominee are slim to none. Polling data in the summer prior to U.S. election years is notoriously non-predictive regarding major party nominations. Projecting a presidential candidate’s viability in 2016 on the basis of their polls in August 2015 is a bit like trying to base a young pitcher’s likelihood of making it to the major leagues on their earned run average in high school. Things get serious after Thanksgiving and peak in the late winter and early spring of the election year. Imagine that Trump managers to semi-miraculously get past coming steep barriers – increased critical scrutiny, heightened attention to other candidates, actual primary contests (where organization plays a critical role), candidate winnowing, and convention delegate selections – to remain to remain a major contender through the Republican Convention in the summer of 2016.

As the unmatched presidential election prognosticator Nate Silver (of the famed 538 blog) notes: “the Republican Party would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid nominating him…. [The GOP is]basically looking for two things from their nominees: They want them to be reliable (meaning, they can be counted on to enact the Republican agenda once in office), and they want them to be electable…It’s hard to think of a candidate who does worse on those two measures than Trump. He’s exceptionally unpopular among independent voters. But he also has a checkered political past that includes once having supported abortion rights and universal health care. For the Republican Party, he’s the worst of all possible worlds.”

The electability question is critical. The GOP has reason to think it may triumph next year. The sitting Democratic U.S. president’s favorability ratings are in the low 40s, something that correlates historically with a Republican victory in 2016. The Republican elite is hardly going to want to blow their big chance to complete their takeover of all three branches of the federal government by putting up a candidate with “enormous, historic, breathtaking unfavorable ratings.”

Silver gives Trump and at best 2% chance of getting his party’s nomination. So don’t (apologies to Blue Oyster Cult) fear The Donald: he’s (in his own parlance) a loser.

But Sanders’ odds are slightly better (Silver puts him at 5%), thanks to the possibilities of a Hillary implosion, but still quite small.. The Democrats’ process is similarly structured to weed out those who lack proper servility to the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money. Glassy-eyed progressive Democrats who make hopeful analogies between Barack Obama in the summer of 2007 and Bernie Sanders in the summer of 2015 betray shocking ignorance of key differences between the former and fake-progressive non-Hillary candidate and the latter, actually progressive non-Hillary candidate. Candidate Obama enjoyed remarkable corporate media approval. He began accumulating what would be a record setting Wall Street-funded campaign war chest more than five years prior to the 2008 presidential election. He wore the deceptive but popular (with the Democratic primary base) mantle of being the “antiwar candidate” at a time when George Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a key issue for primary voters. Sanders is far less favorably situated, to say the least.

Despite the fact that he in line with public opinion on numerous key issue, Sanders, no less than the spectacularly unpopular Trump, is a warm-up act for the real concert – electorally speaking at least

Would Sanders have a better shot against a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio in the general election than Trump would against a Hillary Clinton or Biden? Perhaps, but let’s be serious. The two major parties, the corporate-media-elections complex, and the broader system of empire and inequality that they serve are not about to let a “socialist” – even a merely nominal one who backs the U.S. imperial project like Bernie Sanders – become President of the United States. In the meantime, as Sanders himself seems to partly realize, the essential task for left activists will remain the same after as before the prolonged quadrennial presidential election spectacle, whatever its outcome: to develop militant grassroots popular movements strong enough to move the nation’s policies and political culture in a more progressive and democratic direction and ultimately to overthrow the nation’s racist, imperialist, eco-cidal, sexist, and capitalist plutocracy.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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