The contradiction between capitalism and democracy, and the need for independent media, is well explored in McChesney’s Blowing the Roof off the 21st Century, finds Peter Stauber

Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century

Robert W. McChesney, Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press 2014), 272pp.

At the end of the 1980s, the mood among anti-Apartheid activists was gloomy. Many of them considered the situation in South Africa to be as bad as ever, and chances of abolishing the racist system seemed slim. Two years later, Nelson Mandela was a free man, and a couple of years after his release, he was the first president of post-Apartheid South Africa. Robert McChesney tells this episode at the beginning of his latest book to point out a lesson of which we need to remind ourselves every so often: social change is rarely accurately predicted. It is, on the contrary, ‘almost always a surprise, so we have to keep our minds open to the possibility’ (p.16). It is with this refreshing sense of optimism that McChesney starts his collection of essays, which cover a variety of topics over the past fifteen years – from the Nader presidential campaign in 2000 to the Wisconsin uprising, the corruption of American politics, and the prospects for the media-reform movement.

As in his previous books, this latest volume is both informative and readable, and it manages to balance sharp analysis with excursions into the author’s personal experience; his life has been interesting enough to warrant such digressions. Above all, McChesney seeks to convey a sense of hope that radical change is indeed possible – and that we need to be ready for it. ‘Our job is to […] grasp the dynamics, the tensions, and the contradictions. It is to be prepared so that as crisis points emerge or explode onto the scene […] people will be in a position to generate humane and sustainable solutions’ (p.17).

A common theme that runs through the book is the rightward turn that US politics has taken over the past four decades or so. As in Europe, popular pressure after World War II forced the US government to adopt a range or progressive policies, with the consequence that more people – especially poor people and ethnic minorities – got involved in politics. Hard as it is to believe today, in those days even the Republicans had a centrist faction that produced figures like Dwight Eisenhower. The right wing interpreted this development as a ‘crisis of democracy’. Their answer in the 1970s was a full-on assault on trade unions and welfare policies, and it proved highly successful. It resulted in a shift in the entire political landscape, pushing the mainstream parties further to the right.

Just like New Labour in the UK sought to accommodate the wishes of big business in the mid-1990s, so the Democratic Party in the US – ostensibly more progressive than the Republicans – took a distinct pro-business and pro-military turn in the mid-1980s. The key figures in this new development were Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who worked through the business-funded Democratic Leadership Council. Genuine progressive policies like single-payer health insurance, investment in public transport, reducing inequality, adequate wages and so on were ditched in favour of industry deregulation, budget balancing, lower taxes and the privatisation of public services. In other words, classic neoliberal policies. This development has been reflected in the narrowing range of opinion that is expressed in the mainstream media, which extends ‘from the far right to the neoliberal “center”’, writes McChesney (p.39).

The media bias was obvious in the uprising that gripped Wisconsin in early 2011. For people outside the US, it is easy to forget just how crucial the protests against the governor’s attack on unions was. McChesney reminds us that the current phase of democratic struggle – the most well-known one of which is the Occupy movement – was ushered in in Madison. But reading, watching and listening to the corporate media, you would not have thought so: false stories about support for the Republicans got huge coverage, while big protests by progressive forces hardly received a mention. This bias did incalculable damage, writes McChesney: it confused people, even those sympathetic to the protests, and after the coverage soon stopped, people forgot about Wisconsin.

From Wisconsin, McChesney goes on to look at the larger contradiction between capitalism and democracy, which is most obvious in the rise of what he terms ‘dollarocracy’; a specifically US form of plutocracy. It is not an issue of straightforward bribery, but a ‘structural dependence upon corporate money built into the DNA of the political system’ (p.72). The pervasive lobbying that dominates politics in Washington is the most obvious aspect of this form of government, with the result that when ‘the opinions of the poor diverge from those of the well-off, the opinions of the poor cease to have any influence’ (p.74).

Because wealthy and powerful lobbies have so much political clout, the debate is dominated by views which were in fashion before the Great Depression of the 1930s. For today’s capitalists, the fact that these theories have subsequently been discredited is beside the point, just as the fact that they have led to today’s economic crisis and stagnation. They are much more interested in maintaining their position of power than in making the economy work for everybody. ‘Dollarocracy’, writes McChesney, ‘to put it mildly, has a much greater comfort zone with stagnation and austerity than the general population’ (p.85).

The second part of the book looks more closely at two particular aspects of the United States’ post-war history: the punitive turn within the US justice system, which led to an exploding prison population, and the rise of the military-industrial complex. The latter was already well-established when President Eisenhower issued his warning in 1961, and the continuation of the US foreign policy, that has an imperialist strategy at its heart, ensures that said complex is kept well and alive. It was given another boost when George W. Bush and his ‘particularly bellicose group of neoconservatives’ took over in Washington. However, Bush was far from being an exception, as was the view expressed by Eric Hobsbawm in 2008, when he called for a return ‘from megalomania to rational foreign policy’. McChesney contends that expanded militarism and imperialism have been firmly entrenched for decades: the creation of an extensive military establishment to serve the US empire laid the foundations of a distinct US post-Second-Wold-War capitalism (p.117).

The neoliberalisation of US politics cannot be rolled back without a free media: in order to participate in society, citizens need to have access to adequate information. This is a challenge that McChesney tackles in the last section of his book, in which he draws on his experience as a public-radio talk-show host and a founder of the media-reform movement. He picks up on arguments that he has already made in his previous book, Digital Disconnect, dealing with the crisis of newspapers, the capitalist distortion of online media, and ways to make news more democratic: in McChesney’s words, ‘to establish a nonprofit, noncommercial, competitive, uncensored, and independent press system, embracing digital technologies’ (p.234). He makes a few concrete and convincing proposals of how to achieve this, and in doing so he conveys the same sense of urgency and optimism that runs throughout the book: change is indeed possible, but we need to start preparing for it now.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.