In this essay, I look at the problems facing progressives and those on the political left in the United States in participating in political analysis and debate in mainstream journalism and the news media. I focus on radio broadcasting, as this is where much of political discussion takes place in the United States. Radio broadcasting is the least expensive of the media for production and reception, is ubiquitous, has adapted itself to the Internet, and is uniquely suited for locally based programming.… I look specifically at my own experience hosting a weekly public affairs program on an NPR (National Public Radio)-affiliated radio station in Illinois from 2002–2012. This was, to my knowledge, the only NPR series hosted by a socialist in the network’s history.
In the United States and much of the world there is a palpable depression about the prospect of overcoming the downward spiral created by the tyranny of wealth and privilege and establishing a truly democratic and sustainable society. It threatens to become self-fulfilling. In this trailblazing new book, award-winning author Robert W. McChesney argues that the weight of the present is blinding people to the changing nature and the tremendous possibilities of the historical moment we inhabit. In Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century, he uses a sophisticated political economic analysis to delineate the recent trajectory of capitalism and its ongoing degeneration.
The United States came out of the Second World War as the hegemonic power in the world economy. The war had lifted the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression by providing the needed effective demand in the form of endless orders for armaments and troops. Real output rose by 65 percent between 1940 and 1944, and industrial production jumped by 90 percent. At the immediate end of the war, due to the destruction of the European and Japanese economies, the United States accounted for over 60 percent of world manufacturing output. The very palpable fear at the top of society as the war came to a close was that of a reversion to the pre-war situation in which domestic demand would be insufficient to absorb the enormous and growing potential economic surplus generated by the production system, thereby leading to a renewed condition of economic stagnation and depression.… Postwar planners in industry and government moved quickly to stabilize the system through the massive promotion of a sales effort in the form of a corporate marketing revolution based in Madison Avenue, and through the creation of a permanent warfare state, dedicated to the imperial control of world markets and to fighting the Cold War, with its headquarters in the Pentagon. The sales effort and the military-industrial complex constituted the two main surplus-absorption mechanisms (beyond capitalist consumption and investment) in the U.S. economy in the first quarter-century after the Second World War.
Rupert Murdoch is unquestionably the single most important media figure of our times. He is a dominant force in the journalism and politics of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Whether the world would be the same with some other person playing the same role had he never been born is an academic matter. In this world, Murdoch controls a vast media empire, which pushes his political agenda and his commercial ambitions. One studies Murdoch much like one studies Rommel: in awe of the vision but petrified by the consequences of his actions.
The contemporary media reform movement exploded into prominence in the United States in 2003 as a response to the effort by the Bush Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to weaken media ownership regulations.… The size and success of this popular uprising was…a testament to the power of activism to thwart the plans of the powerful in seemingly hopeless conditions.… The Obama campaign in 2007 and 2008 expressed interest in media reform and worked closely with members of the movement…. Except for Obama’s speech against the Iraq War invasion, it was arguably his communication platform that most distinguished him as a progressive in the 2008 presidential primaries.… One can debate whether this was an appropriate strategic shift at the time but there can be no debate that the strategy failed. The Obama administration abandoned its platform almost immediately, and repudiated the movement.
The past half-century has been dominated by the rise of media to a commanding position in the social life of most people and nations, to the point where it is banal to regard this as the “information age.” The once-dazzling ascension of television in the 1950s and ’60s now looks like the horse-and-buggy era when one assesses the Internet, smartphones, and the digital revolution. For social theorists of all stripes communication has moved to center stage. And for those on the left, addressing the role of communication in achieving social change and then maintaining popular rule in the face of reactionary backlash is now a primary concern.… political economists of communication, including one of us, identified themselves as in the tradition of radical political economy, but with a sophisticated appreciation of media that had escaped.… [the stellar critique of journalism produced… by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky]. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy were occasionally held up by political economists of communication as representing the sort of traditional Marxists who underappreciated the importance of media, communication, and culture.… We were never especially impressed by this criticism. To us, Monopoly Capital, and the broader political economy of Baran and Sweezy, far from ignoring communication, provided key elements for a serious study of the subject. [Note: this article was released in three parts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]
On the brink of the 2012 presidential election, and without considering that electoral contest itself, it is useful to comment on the state of U.S. democracy. The most striking lesson from contemporary U.S. election campaigns is how vast and growing the distance is between the rhetoric and pronouncements of the politicians and pundits and the actual deepening, immense, and largely ignored problems that afflict the people of the United States.… Mainstream politics seem increasingly irrelevant to the real problems the nation faces…. The degeneration of U.S. politics is a long-term process.… capitalism and democracy have always had a difficult relationship. The former generates severe inequality and the latter is predicated upon political equality.… Capitalist democracy therefore becomes more democratic to the extent that it is less capitalist (dominated by wealth) and to the extent to which popular forces—those without substantial property—are able to organize successfully to win great victories…. In the past four decades such organized popular forces in the United States—never especially strong compared to most other capitalist democracies—have been decimated, with disastrous consequences. The United States has long been considered a “weak democracy”; by the second decade of the new century that is truly an exaggeration. Today, the United States is better understood as what John Nichols and I term a “Dollarocracy”—the rule of money rather than the rule of the people—a specifically U.S. form of plutocracy.
The Great Financial Crisis and the Great Recession began in the United States in 2007 and quickly spread across the globe, marking what appears to be a turning point in world history. Although this was followed within two years by a recovery phase, the world economy five years after the onset of the crisis is still in the doldrums…. The one bright spot in the world economy, from a growth standpoint, has been the seemingly unstoppable expansion of a handful of emerging economies, particularly China. Yet, the continuing stability of China is now also in question. Hence, the general consensus among informed economic observers is that the world capitalist economy is facing the threat of long-run economic stagnation (complicated by the prospect of further financial deleveraging)…. It is this issue of the stagnation of the capitalist economy, even more than that of financial crisis or recession that has now emerged as the big question worldwide.
The United States is in the midst of its quadrennial presidential election, a process that now extends so long as to be all but permanent. The campaign is also drenched in more money given by a small handful of billionaires than has been the case in the past. Since the 1970s the amount spent on political campaigns has increased dramatically in almost every election cycle. It has led to the formation of what we term the “money-and-media election complex,” which has a revenue base in the many billions of campaign dollars donated annually, and has effectively become the foundation of electoral politics in the United States. Moreover, the rate of increase in campaign spending from 2008 to 2010, and especially from 2008 to 2012, is now at an all-time high.
Five years after the Great Financial Crisis of 2007–09 began there is still no sign of a full recovery of the world economy. Consequently, concern has increasingly shifted from financial crisis and recession to slow growth or stagnation, causing some to dub the current era the Great Stagnation. Stagnation and financial crisis are now seen as feeding into one another.… To be sure, a few emerging economies have seemingly bucked the general trend, continuing to grow rapidly—most notably China, now the world’s second largest economy after the United States. Yet, as [IMF Managing Director Christine] Lagarde warned her Chinese listeners, “Asia is not immune” to the general economic slowdown, “emerging Asia is also vulnerable to developments in the financial sector.” So sharp were the IMF’s warnings, dovetailing with widespread fears of a sharp Chinese economic slowdown, that Lagarde in late November was forced to reassure world business, declaring that stagnation was probably not imminent in China (the Bloomberg.com headline ran: “IMF Sees Chinese Economy Avoiding Stagnation.”)
The essays in Wisconsin Uprising are outstanding. The accounts of the events in Madison in the winter and early spring of 2011 are the best I have seen in writing, with context, detail, and analysis I have seen nowhere else. Better yet, the connections of the Wisconsin revolt to the existential questions facing the labor movement are handled with a clarity, intelligence, perspective, and urgency that is exactly appropriate to the task. This book is a fundamental historical document in its own right and will stand the test of time. The authors include some of the most accomplished writers on the left, as well as a number of emerging young writers.
In the last few decades there has been an enormous shift in the capitalist economy in the direction of the globalization of production. Much of the increase in manufacturing and even services production that would have formerly taken place in the global North—as well as a portion of the North’s preexisting production—is now being offshored to the global South, where it is feeding the rapid industrialization of a handful of emerging economies. It is customary to see this shift as arising from the economic crisis of 1974–75 and the rise of neoliberalism—or as erupting in the 1980s and after, with the huge increase in the global capitalist labor force resulting from the integration of Eastern Europe and China into the world economy. Yet, the foundations of production on a global scale, we will argue, were laid in the 1950s and 1960s, and were already depicted in the work of Stephen Hymer, the foremost theorist of the multinational corporation, who died in 1974.
In a 1997 article entitled “More (or Less) on Globalization,” Paul Sweezy referred to “the three most important underlying trends in the recent history of capitalism, the period beginning with the recession of 1974-75: (1) the slowing down of the overall rate of growth; (2) the worldwide proliferation of monopolistic (or oligopolistic) multinational corporations; and (3) what may be called the financialization of the capital accumulation process.”… The first and third of these three trends—economic stagnation in the rich economies and the financialization of accumulation—have been the subjects of widespread discussion since the onset of severe financial crisis in 2007-09. Yet the second underlying trend, which might be called the “internationalization of monopoly capital,” has received much less attention.… the dominant, neoliberal discourse—one that has also penetrated the left—assumes that the tendency toward monopoly has been vanquished… [In contrast,] we suggest that renewed international competition evident since the 1970s was much more limited in range than often supposed… In short, we are confronted by a system of international oligopoly.
A striking paradox animates political economy in our times. On the one hand, mainstream economics and much of left economics discuss our era as one of intense and increased competition among businesses, now on a global scale. It is a matter so self-evident as no longer to require empirical verification or scholarly examination. On the other hand, wherever one looks, it seems that nearly every industry is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Formerly competitive sectors like retail are now the province of enormous monopolistic chains, massive economic fortunes are being assembled into the hands of a few mega-billionaires sitting atop vast empires, and the new firms and industries spawned by the digital revolution have quickly gravitated to monopoly status. In short, monopoly power is ascendant as never before.
The United States and the world are now a good two decades into the Internet revolution, or what was once called the information age. The past generation has seen a blizzard of mind-boggling developments in communication, ranging from the World Wide Web and broadband, to ubiquitous cell phones that are quickly becoming high-powered wireless computers in their own right.… The full impact of the Internet revolution will only become apparent in the future, as more technological change is on the horizon that can barely be imagined and hardly anticipated. But enough time has transpired, and institutions and practices have been developed, that an assessment of the digital era is possible, as well as a sense of its likely trajectory into the future.