The following is the first chapter of Blowing the Roof Off, “America, I Do Mind Dying”:
Please, mister foreman, slow down that assembly line
I don’t mind working but I do mind dying.
—JOE L. CARTER, “Please, Mister Foreman,” blues song, 1965
THESE ARE PERILOUS TIMES for capitalism, the reigning political economic system of the United States and the world. The economy is stagnating, and Mother Earth is gravely ill. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we face widening economic inequality, plutocratic governance, endless militarism and mounting planetary ecological degradation.
Not many years ago, this would have sounded hyperbolic to many people. But today, it is not just radicals who are sounding alarm bells. Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been writing about secular stagnation in the past year in remarkably alarmist terms, arguing that the rich economies may be caught in decades of slow growth. No less an establishment figure than former World Bank Chief Economist and U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers warned the International Monetary Fund in 2013 that the United States and the advanced economies may be facing a generation of stagnation.(1)
Moreover, some of our leading social and natural scientists have recently established the magnitude of the difficulties we face with cutting-edge research. There is now wide agreement on what the influential French economist Thomas Piketty has demonstrated, which is that growing economic inequality is built into the core logic of the capitalist system.(2) His research also suggests that a new oligarchy of inherited wealth has come to dominate society and the state, and the process is accelerated by stagnation. According to Krugman, writing on Piketty’s discoveries, “We’re going to look back nostalgically on the early 21st century when you could still at least have the pretense that the wealthy actually earned their wealth. And, you know, by the year 2030, it’ll all be inherited.” Indeed, “we are seeing not only great disparities in income and wealth, but we’re seeing them get entrenched. We’re seeing them become inequalities that will be transferred across generations. We are becoming very much the kind of society we imagine we’re nothing like.”(3)
In other acclaimed new empirical research, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page examined 1,800 policy decisions made by the U.S. government between 1981 and 2002:
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. . . . Ordinary citizens might often be observed to “win” (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.(4)
In short, when organized wealth wants one thing and the mass of the people wants another, money wins—always. “Democracy” has been reduced to powerless people rooting for their favored billionaire or corporate lobby to advance their values and interests, and hoping such a billionaire exists and that they get lucky. Doesn’t that sound like the oligarchy that was explicitly rejected in this nation’s founding in Philadelphia in 1776, and reaffirmed in Lincoln’s speech at the bloodstained earth of Gettysburg some four score and seven years later?
Matters are, if anything, worse when it comes to our environment. The scientists on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in 2014 that ought to terrify any sentient being. Its conclusion: continuing on the present economic path of “business as usual” will lead to certain catastrophe for human society.(5) The failure of governments to enact effective climate policies, due in large part to corporate lobbying, is pointing us toward the worst outcomes. In the United States, for example, no law on the environment has been passed by Congress without the Business Roundtable’s approval since 1975. The Business Roundtable is a pro-business lobbying group composed of CEOs from the very largest corporations, including the handful of energy giants.(6) With growing inequality and unlimited billionaire spending on politics, the already grave present moment may be remembered fondly decades down the road, if anyone is around to remember it.
In the coming decades we are almost certainly going to see a society the likes of which has never existed and can scarcely be imagined. I argue in this book that if that new society is going to be one in which we want to live, it will require fundamental change in the political economy. Capitalism as we know it has got to go.
Although this is a radical idea, it is not necessarily a marginal one. Criticism of capitalism is no longer verboten in the United States, especially among young people, and there is good reason to believe this critical stance may grow by leaps and bounds. Capitalism today does not appear to offer youth much hope, and as a result, they are far more open to alternatives to it than their peers were a generation ago. In 2011 there were massive, almost spontaneous, demonstrations, beginning in Madison, Wisconsin, in February and then spreading in the fall to the various Occupy encampments nationwide. Such uprisings had not been seen in the United States for decades, maybe generations. A sleeping giant, it seemed, had been awakened and aroused, its power harnessed by young people. Since 2010, I have given around two hundred public talks across the United States on these themes, roughly half of which were on college campuses, and I couldn’t help but notice the heightened awareness.
Yet, especially after 2011, the optimism generated by these movements had dissipated, and the most arresting sentiment I encountered as I traveled the nation was one of tremendous pessimism about the possibility of progressive social change. While I found support for my critique everywhere I went, in a manner I had never experienced before, I also found people had concluded that there were no alternatives to the status quo. Or, if there were alternatives, there was no way to bring them into being. The fix was in, and political activity could not yield positive results. It was hopeless, and only deluded fools would bother to think otherwise. The ironic lesson of the Wisconsin uprising and Occupy was not that there was a vast underground ocean of untapped and inchoate support for progressive and radical politics in the United States, but rather that we had been there and done that and it had failed. Game over.
One is reminded of the title of one of William Faulkner’s novels, As I Lay Dying—a sad reality for an individual, but an unthinkable tragedy for an entire society or civilization.
By the fall of 2013, when I was on a 60-event speaking tour for Dollarocracy with my co-author John Nichols, the pessimism was so predictable and palpable that we altered our talks and became ersatz motivational speakers. We said that it was too early to harshly judge the impacts of the Madison uprising or Occupy. Effective social change requires more than showing up at a demonstration and holding a sign, as valuable as that may be. John discussed the extraordinary growth of grassroots activism on a number of progressive issues, including a campaign to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics—a beat he covers for The Nation. Because there was almost no mainstream news media coverage of these grassroots developments, people assumed they did not exist.
In my talks I emphasized that it was human nature to assume something entrenched at the moment will remain so into the future. People rarely accurately predict social change; it is almost always a surprise, so we have to keep our minds open to the possibility. No one saw the Madison uprising coming, or Occupy. Howard Zinn used to talk about how no one saw the civil rights movement coming, either. The immediacy of the present weighs like a 300-pound barbell across our chests as we attempt to look ahead. The shift from hopelessness to hope can be very sudden. Occupy showed us that. One can’t judge from current sentiment.
I told the story about how one of my professors in graduate school was a white South African who had moved to the United States in the 1960s and was strongly supportive of the anti-apartheid movement. He had family in South Africa and followed political developments there voraciously. I went to say goodbye to him just before I moved to Madison in May 1988 and found him unusually glum. I asked him what was wrong. He said that the political situation in South Africa was the worst he had ever seen and the chances of abolishing apartheid were more remote than ever. He said that the only way blacks would get justice would be through extraordinary, almost unimaginable, violence that would make the country uninhabitable for anyone. He depressed me, too, because he knew more about South Africa than anyone I knew by a wide margin.
So what happened? Two years later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Four years after that, he was the first elected president of a post-apartheid democratic South Africa. And in those intervening six years, there was less violence than one might find in a New Jersey bar fight on a Saturday night. My friend, the most knowledgeable person I knew about South African politics, at the precise moment before this revolution occurred, had it exactly wrong—180 degrees wrong. (I learned subsequently that his pessimistic view was not uncommon at the time among anti-apartheid activists.)
From that I learned humility. And I also learned that the future is impossible to predict. There was only one Nostradamus. So we should not allow predictions about the likely course of future events to limit how we proceed with our lives. As Noam Chomsky put it, if you act like social change for the better is impossible, you guarantee it will be impossible. That is the choice we all have to make when we look into the mirror. Pessimism is self-fulfilling; it is no way to live.
Then what is a person to do in times like these, when the prospect for change seems dim, yet the conditions of society are unraveling and untenable? Our job is to understand the present and put it in historical perspective. It 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, as they inevitably do, people will be in a position to generate humane and sustainable solutions. We know the roof is going to get blown off the status quo. What we don’t know is if it will be change for the better . . . or not. That will depend upon what we do now and in the coming years.
THIS IS WHY I decided to do this book. I wanted to respond to the sense that we are entering perilous times and provide a sense of how we might imagine and achieve a brighter future. I had written a handful of essays that addressed the politics of this period and provided a diagnosis of the crises of the U.S. political economy. I had also written related pieces on media politics and the burgeoning media reform movement, of which I am a part. These essays form the core of this book, and I have added several chapters written with this book in mind, to give the volume coherence and to formally make my case.
The basis for my argument is that the United States and the world experienced a sea change with the economic collapse of 2008. The crisis was not a fluke or an accident; it was the result of core problems built into the modern capitalist system that give it a pronounced tendency toward economic stagnation. The massive growth of the financial sector and the mountain of consumer debt that preceded the Great Recession did not create stagnation; these were, in fact, the antidote to stagnationist tendencies dating back to the 1970s. But the spur that financialization gave to capitalist growth produced a bloated debt structure that was unsustainable. In the book I wrote with John Bellamy Foster, The Endless Crisis (Monthly Review Press, 2012), we explained the stagnationist tendency in modern U.S. capitalism, and why mainstream policy prescriptions can offer no solution to it, except austerity, which brings only more stagnation, not to mention unnecessary misery and hardship for the vast majority of the population.
Stagnation aggravates all the great historic problems associated with capitalism. Economic inequality mushrooms, poverty increases, public services are slashed, there is tremendous downward pressure on wages. And at the same time, corporations and wealthy investors successfully demand ever greater concessions from governments and communities as the quid pro quo for their investment. Capital generally struggles to find profitable investment outlets, but today the problem is particularly acute. In 2014 there is by some accounts as much as $2 trillion in capital sitting on the sidelines while there are tens of millions of workers unemployed or only partially employed. It has been this way for years. By any objective measure, this is socially absurd.
The current pattern for capital is to zero in on public services like a heat-seeking missile and to take over those government operations and convert them into profit-centers for corporations. Many government activities have been, or are in the process of being, privatized or outsourced, from the military to surveillance to prisons to education. The evidence demonstrates these privatizations and outsourcings basically benefit the investors, who often reap monopoly profits, but degrade the quality and cost efficiency of the services otherwise. They are corrosive to effective democratic governance.(7) Likewise, government regulations to protect workers, consumers, and the environment have to be jettisoned to encourage the “job creators” to get off their butts and swing into action. These have proven to be palliative measures for ravenous investors, but a disaster for everyone else. To stay alive today, capitalism is eating our future.
My recent research has tracked dimensions of this broad crisis. In The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books, 2010), John Nichols and I chronicled the historic tension between commercialism and democratic journalism. This is what led to the creation of professional journalism a century ago, a system that improved upon the blatant corruption and owner propaganda of what immediately preceded it but also had deep flaws. In the past decade, especially since 2008, the corporate sector has abandoned the hope of making a profit from doing journalism, and the news media are in freefall collapse. There is dramatically less reporting and coverage of politics and the affairs of state than a generation ago, and the situation is getting worse every year. This is unacceptable for an ostensibly self-governing society.
In my 2013 book Digital Disconnect (New Press), I examined how the Internet has been converted from a “militantly egalitarian” space, as Netscape founder Marc Andreessen put it, and an anti-commercial zone as recently as the early 1990s, to the center of capitalism that is extending the market into every aspect of our lives. The Internet, rather than being an engine of economic competition, has spawned the greatest monopolies ever known to capitalism in the course of less than two decades. This has seriously undermined its potential to be a force for democracy.
This point bears elaboration. In their 2014 book, The Second Machine Age, M.I.T. business professors Erik Brynjolffsson and Andrew McAfee describe the mind-boggling digital technologies that may be on the verge of revolutionizing manufacturing and overall economic productivity in a manner comparable or superior to the first great Industrial Revolution. This digital bounty, they suggest optimistically, provides the basis for eliminating poverty worldwide, cleaning up the environment, and generally taking civilization to staggeringly unimaginable heights. But as even these unvarnished champions of capitalism concede, the way capitalism works means that this almost certainly will not take place because there is no place in digital capitalism for the preponderance of the population to gainfully participate. Brynjolsson and McAfee conclude that strong policy measures are mandatory to aggressively counteract inequality.(8) Or, to put it in my language, the digital revolution will have the ironic effect of aggravating all the core problems of contemporary capitalism that are highlighted at the top of this chapter.
And what are the chances that the U.S. government will institute policies to radically decrease economic inequality and see that the economy works for all? In Dollarocracy, John Nichols and I provided a detailed look at the “money and media election complex” that has decimated the caliber of the American election system and has made the governing process evermore the domain of wealthy interests. In the book we present the developments as part of a broader campaign, begun in the 1970s, by corporate America to crush the democratic gains established from 1900 to 1970 and return control over the government to the wealthy, as in the Gilded Age.
These books—which addressed capitalism, communication, and democracy—do more than provide a diagnosis of a problem; they provide a battery of tangible proposals that, if enacted, would go a long way toward asserting the primacy of democratic values. Because journalism is a public good, the proposals center on the creation of independent, uncensored, nonprofit, and noncommercial news media, that would have sufficient public funding but whose content the government could not control. As for the Internet, the key is to eliminate corporate monopoly bottlenecks, eliminate commercial and government surveillance, and make access ubiquitous and free. With regard to elections, we proposed a number of measures to get money out of the game, democratize the governing process, and reassert the primacy of one-person, one-vote.
Implicit in all these books was the notion that there could only be successful change in any of these areas if there was a broad movement that created sufficient pressure for change in all of them. And such a movement would, by definition, be premised on the conviction that the current really existing capitalist system is deeply flawed, if not rotten to the core. That is the topic I address here, and in the rest of the book. It is time to start thinking about and talking about the need for a post-capitalist democracy.
WHAT DO I MEAN by post-capitalist democracy? I mean a society expressly committed to democratic practices first and foremost, and one that directly addresses the ways that really existing capitalism is inimical to democracy, human freedom, and ecological sustainability. I use the term “really existing capitalism” for a reason. I refer to the capitalism of massive corporations, commercial propaganda, political corruption, obscene inequality, poverty, stagnation, militarism, and endless greed. That capitalism, the one people actually experience, is the main impediment to democracy in the United States today.
I am not therefore referring to the classroom fantasy of capitalism as a bunch of heroic little-guy entrepreneurs competing for the betterment of consumers, and creating jobs in the communities they inhabit. This is the “free market” system of public relations missives and politicians’ blarney. It has about as much to do with the American economy and society today as the official rhetoric of “workers’ democracy” did to Soviet communism in much of the twentieth century. I have no particular problem with small business. I started two successful concerns in my life, one a commercial rock music magazine and the other a nonprofit public interest group. In both cases the success of the organization was due in large part to me and my partners working our butts off, i.e. exploiting our own labor. If someone wants to start an enterprise, more power to you. In this sense, I am as much a product of Lincoln—who saw small business as an extension of labor, not a part of big business—as I am of Marx.(9)
That is one of the reasons, when I deal with immediate political struggles, I prefer the term post-capitalist democracy to the term socialism, though for me they point in essentially the same direction. I have considered myself a socialist since I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and I still do. The term has always signified to me the creation of genuine political democracy, its extension into the economic realm, and having the wealth created by society directed to social needs. To me a socialist outlook recognizes that a capitalist society can never be more than superficially democratic, and whatever democratic victories are won will always be in jeopardy. This is in the spirit of the person whose words inspired the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, as well as the great socialists of our more recent history: Eugene Debs, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Helen Keller, W. E. B. Du Bois, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is post-capitalist, egalitarian, and democratic; it has never been more pertinent to the human condition than it is today.
But the term socialism, it needs to be said, means wildly different things to different people. To some it is the social-democratic welfare state of Scandinavia; to others, it is any form of government spending on matters aside from police work, prisons, and the military. For some, predominantly on the right, socialism of any kind leads inexorably to Soviet one-party dictatorships. To others, suspicious of grounding socialism in the state, it is primarily a society of democratic workers’ cooperatives. Many on the left see it as a basic set of values and practices more than a single, coherent model.
In this sense, the term socialism begs as many questions as it answers, and carries a lot of baggage. We can spend so much time discussing arcane theoretical issues that we lose sight of the pressing immediate issues that drive us to ponder a post-capitalist political economy. Instead of addressing real problems and discussing real solutions, we float toward an abstract discussion in order to reach consensus on how to structure some futuristic world that doesn’t have a chance of existing until we start doing the hard work of creating a more democratic society right here and now.
Hence my use of the term post-capitalist democracy in this book. The emphasis is on democracy, flowing from the recognition of democracy’s incompatibility with capitalism in crucial areas. The term explains itself, I hope, and leads discussion in a more productive direction. The economics follow the politics and not vice versa. Framed this way, the discussion can be more inclusive, without any sort of political litmus test as the ante to admission. It is imperative that this discussion attract people of all stripes, and that we not use a term that permits a sizable part of the population to dismiss the debate out of hand. I know from personal experience in media reform activism that there are some important issues in which people on the right or center can find common ground with those on the left.(10) They believe the reforms will encourage the idyllic type of capitalism they prefer; I believe they will lead to a post-capitalist democracy, and possibly socialism. We can thrash that out down the road. In the meantime, where we have common interests, we have to exploit them if we are to have success.
In short, I propose post-capitalist democracy as a big tent to cover everyone who wants democracy and leaves out only those who put their blind faith in the wealthy, giant corporations, and the profit motive regardless of the evidence or social costs. There are a lot more people in group A than group B, fortunately.
The importance and value of being inclusive will become apparent, I hope, in the pages that follow. In addition to those on the left whose names appear throughout the book, I have learned from, and been influenced by, an eclectic group of writers. I demonstrate how the writings on journalism by Walter Lippmann, no leftist after a dalliance with socialism as a youth, provide keen insights into our current situation and turn the discussion toward radical solutions. Some readers may be surprised to see that I have found value when drafting policy proposals in aspects of the work of conservative “free market” economists like Henry Simons and Milton Friedman. This tradition was especially fruitful when it stood outside of power and delivered intellectually consistent criticism. In the past fifty years, as it has become the official dogma of global capitalism, “free market” conservatism has accommodated itself to the powers-that-be. So it is that once formidable criticism of monopoly power, political corruption, and advertising, for example, has been marginalized or replaced with non sequiturs and apologetics.
Many of the writers who have influenced me are political liberals, Keynesian in economics, largely unsympathetic to socialism, and convinced that capitalism is the best possible system, and its problems can be reformed away so that it has a human face. I am deeply skeptical about that project, but in all honesty I cannot rule that possibility out. In the meantime, I think there is tremendous common ground between those on the left and liberals when the discussion turns to specific real world issues. The point is to identify those specific areas where the evidence is strong that capitalism is truly damaging to democratic values and governance, and struggle for radical changes there.
SO WHAT, PRECISELY, ARE some of the immediate areas to pursue to establish a post-capitalist democracy? For starters, end military profiteering. While many of the founders of this nation were certainly expansionists who envisioned the United States becoming a powerful country, they were simultaneously concerned with limiting the role of the military, which they regarded as a singularly anti-democratic force. The Constitution was written to “impede” warmaking, as George Mason put it, and there was considerable skepticism about the idea of a standing army. Through much of American history, the military was small, except for the occasional major war, and even much of the production of battleships and armaments was kept under public control. It was considered scandalous that a business might enrich itself through militarism. In the 1930s, U.S. Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota famously denounced the munitions industry as “an unadulterated, unblushing racket.”(11) As recently as the U.S. entry into the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt stated, to popular acclaim, “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster.”(12)
That seems so very, very long ago. Today military spending is hardwired into really existing capitalism, and in the past generation many of those elements of Pentagon spending that were once controlled by the military have been outsourced to corporate interests. The military/national security budget is a trillion-dollar grab bag of risk-free monopoly profits for a handful of gigantic corporations. These firms employ a lobbying armada in Washington filled with retired military officers and congressmen who promote ever-expanding militarism regardless of the social consequences. This is simply inimical to constitutional rule, and possibly poisonous for human survival. As much as possible, we need to take the profit out of warmaking and political surveillance; otherwise they will only grow. How to do that is where the discussion needs to go, and the sooner the better. Traditionally this has been a conservative issue as well as one for liberals and the left. It should be so again.
The same post-capitalist democracy reasoning applies to other public services (or public goods) that are in the process of being privatized and outsourced. Consider the stunning growth of the prison-industrial complex; here too we now have commercial interests with an immense stake in seeing that the United States remain the world leader in incarcerating the highest percentage of its citizenry of any nation, not just in the world today but in human history!(13) Along similar lines, one of the defining issues of these times is the effort to privatize public education and turn the massive public school budgets over to corporate interests. Diane Ravitch has heroically demolished the baseless claims of the privatization movement and demonstrated the dire consequences for society if the plans proceed.(14)
Then there are those industries that are highly concentrated, closely associated with the government, and whose pursuit of profits leads to enormous “externalities” or costs that the firms can avoid but that society must either pay for or suffer unacceptable consequences. The handful of banks that dominate the economy are more dangerous than beneficial for society. We need to take the crucial function of allocating society’s savings out of the hands of billionaire speculators who have tremendous incentive (and capacity) to rig the system. Or consider the small number of energy behemoths that have a decided stake in an industry that enhances global warming and the climate crisis. Can we really afford to let a few firms rake in tens of billions of dollars in profits annually while the planet roasts like a marshmallow over a summer campfire? And similarly, we have the parasitic health insurance industry, which is indefensible economically and does not even exist in most democratic nations, which have superior and more cost-effective health care systems.
Finally, this post-capitalist democracy logic applies in spades to journalism and communication. There are solutions to the vexing problems of Internet surveillance and the collapse of journalism, but they require confronting and eliminating corporate power and profit-making in specific industries. Sometimes it can be done through regulation, but generally it requires the conversion of the sector into public enterprise. The policy debate should then be about how to structure those public enterprises to maximize the benefits and minimize the dangers—and create institutions that are democratic and accountable.
As radical as the above ideas may seem, as completely outside the range of legitimate debate as they presently are, even if all of them were implemented this would still be a capitalist economy. Profit-making would drive most economic activity. One could even make an argument that markets would actually thrive in this environment. But it would be a different type of capitalism, and point the way toward a possible post-capitalist future—what I call socialism—if the people of the nation elected to move in that direction.
YOU CAN’T GET THERE from here, is the standard refrain. Hence my concern for the nitty-gritty of political strategy and tactics as well as programmatic issues. The task of social transformation is daunting, if only because much of the institutional power that the labor movement and the left used to have has been dismantled. When you compare the resources of progressives to the resources of the largest corporations and their allies, you feel like you are lining up for the Indianapolis 500 on a tricycle. But harder battles—ending slavery, anyone?—have been won by humanity.
Building a popular movement is the primary task. Using such a popular movement to generate effective institutions to challenge political power grows from that. The issues that logically draw people together are demands for the right to full-time employment at a living wage, something considered entirely appropriate in the mid-twentieth century in the United States but that subsequently was dispatched in mainstream discourse to the outer limits of kooky ideas. It is not a kooky idea; it is the most important demand to organize around. It requires that the state put people to work if need be, and it shifts power to the working class so that the threat of unemployment, debt, poverty, and destitution cannot loom over a person’s head like a guillotine. From this increased power a cascade of core progressive demands flows, including the need for a truly accessible and democratic media system.
Many liberals who wish to reform and humanize capitalism are uncomfortable with seemingly radical movements, and often work to distance themselves from them, lest respectable people in power cast a withering eye at them. “Shhh,” they say to people like me. “If we antagonize or scare those in power we will lose our seat at the table and not be able to win any reforms.” Yet these same liberal reformers often are dismayed at how they are politically ineffectual. Therein lies a great irony, because to enact significant reforms requires a mass movement (or the credible prospect of a mass movement) that does indeed threaten the powerful. The influence of mild reformers rises greatly when people in power look out the window and see a million people demonstrating. If there is an iron law of politics, this is it.
People in power certainly know this. Nothing frightens them like popular uprisings they do not and cannot control. For that reason, cynicism and political apathy are generally encouraged in the United States. It is not a fluke that voter turnout in the United States is well below that of nearly every other nation in the world. In the 1970s, on the heels of the popular uprisings of that era, people in power spoke candidly (to each other) about the need to have young people and the dispossessed return to apathy. Much of their work since then has been to achieve that goal. When we tune out politics, when we abandon hope, we aren’t being cool or hip or ironic or even realistic—we are being played. [Except when the refusal to play the duopoly’s electoral game is on principled grounds of conscious rejection of the system, as an act of political assertion.—Eds.]
This elite fear of genuine democracy should encourage all those dedicated to building a more humane and sustainable post-capitalist democracy. Those atop the system know we have the numbers on our side. They know the system is rigged for them, and they want to keep it that way. They know they cannot win a fair fight. Hence billionaires’ energy goes to matters like wholesale voter suppression and flooding election campaigns with unlimited secretive spending. They must feed the machinery of pessimism and despair because they know they cannot defeat an aroused citizenry. That tells me that if we do effective organizing it will be like planting a seed in rich Iowa topsoil. Put this way, I like our chances. I like them a lot.
1. Paul Krugman, “Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers,” New York Times, November 16, 2013, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/16/secular-stagnation-coalmines-bubbles-and-larry-summers/.
7. Daphne T. Greenwood, “The Decision to Contract Out: Understanding the Full Economic and Social Impacts,” paper published by the Colorado Center for Policy Studies, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, March 2014.
13. Aaron Cantú, “Inside the Private Prison Industry’s Alarming Spread across America,” AlterNet, April 9, 2014,http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/inside-private-prison-industrys-alarming-spread-across-america.
Copyright (2014) by Robert W. McChesney. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Monthly Review Press.
America’s dark imperial legacy: It goes much deeper than George W. Bush
While our 43rd president rightly takes blame for his disastrous failed wars, there’s much more blame to go around
The United States unique today among major states in the degree of its reliance on military spending and its determination to stand astride the world, militarily as well as economically. No other country in the post–Second World War world has been so globally destructive or inflicted so many war fatalities. Since 2001, acknowledged U.S. national defense spending has increased by almost 60 percent in real dollar terms to a level in 2007 of $553 billion. This is higher than at any point since the Second World War (though lower than previous decades as a percentage of GDP). Based on such official figures, the United States is reported by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) as accounting for 45 percent of world military expenditures. Yet, so gargantuan and labyrinthine are U.S. military expenditures that their true magnitude reached $1 trillion in 2007.
Externally, these are necessary expenditures of world empire. Internally, they represent, as Michal Kalecki was the first to suggest, an imperial triangle of state-financed military production, media propaganda, and real/imagined economic-employment effects that has become a deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating feature of the U.S. social order.
Many analysts today view the present growth of U.S. militarism and imperialism as largely divorced from the earlier Cold War history of the United States, which was commonly seen as a response to the threat represented by the Soviet Union. Placed against this backdrop the current turn to war and war preparation appears to numerous commentators to lack a distinct target, despite concerns about global terrorism, and to be mainly the product of irrational hubris on the part of U.S. leaders. Even as insightful a left historian as Eric Hobsbawm has recently adopted this general perspective. Thus in his 2008 book On Empire Hobsbawm writes:
Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy. . . . Today a radical right-wing regime seeks to mobilize “true Americans” against some evil outside force and against a world that does not recognize the uniqueness, the superiority, the manifest destiny of America. . . . In effect, the most obvious danger of war today arises from the global ambitions of an uncontrollable and apparently irrational government in Washington. . . . To give America the best chance of learning to return from megalomania to rational foreign policy is the most immediate and urgent task of international politics.
Such a view, which sees the United States as under the influence of a new irrationalism introduced by George W. Bush and a cabal of neoconservative “political crazies,” and consequently calls for a return from “megalomania to rational foreign policy,” downplays the larger historical and structural forces at work that connect the Cold War and post–Cold War imperial eras. In contrast, a more realistic perspective, I believe, can be obtained by looking at the origins of the U.S. “military ascendancy” (as C. Wright Mills termed it) in the early Cold War years and the centrality this has assumed in the constitution of the U.S. empire and economy up to the present.
The Permanent War Economy and Military Keynesianism
In January 1944 Charles E. Wilson, president of General Electric and executive vice chairman of the War Production Board, delivered a speech to the Army Ordnance Association advocating a permanent war economy. According to the plan Wilson proposed on that occasion, every major corporation should have a “liaison” representative with the military, who would be given a commission as a colonel in the Reserve. This would form the basis of a program, to be initiated by the president as commander-in-chief in cooperation with the War and Navy departments, designed to bind corporations and the military together into a single unified armed forces–industrial complex. “What is more natural and logical,” he asked, “than that we should henceforth mount our national policy upon the solid fact of an industrial capacity for war, and a research capacity for war that is already ‘in being’? It seems to me anything less is foolhardy.” Wilson went on to indicate that in this plan the part to be played by Congress was restricted to voting for the needed funds. Further, it was essential that industry be allowed to play its central role in this new warfare state without being hindered politically “or thrown to the fanatical isolationist fringe [and] tagged with a ‘merchants-of-death’ label.”
In calling even before the Second World War had come to a close for a “continuing program of industrial preparedness” for war, Charles E. Wilson (sometimes referred to as “General Electric Wilson” to distinguish him from “General Motors Wilson”—Charles Erwin Wilson, president of General Motors and Eisenhower’s secretary of defense) was articulating a view that was to characterize the U.S. oligarchy as a whole during the years immediately following the Second World War. In earlier eras it had been assumed that there was an economic “guns and butter” trade-off, and that military spending had to occur at the expense of other sectors of the economy. However, one of the lessons of the economic expansion in Nazi Germany, followed by the experience of the United States itself in arming for the Second World War, was that big increases in military spending could act as huge stimulants to the economy. In just six years under the influence of the Second World War, the U.S. economy expanded by 70 percent, finally recovering from the Great Depression. The early Cold War era thus saw the emergence of what later came to be known as “military Keynesianism”: the view that by promoting effective demand and supporting monopoly profits military spending could help place a floor under U.S. capitalism.
John Maynard Keynes, in his landmark General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936, in the midst of the Depression, argued that the answer to economic stagnation was to promote effective demand through government spending. The bastardized Keynesianism that came to be known as “military Keynesianism” was the view that this was best effected with the least negative consequences for big business by focusing on military spending. As Joan Robinson, one of Keynes’s younger colleagues, critically explained in her iconoclastic lecture, “The Second Crisis of Economic Theory,” before the American Economic Association on December 27, 1971:
The most convenient thing for a government to spend on is armaments. The military-industrial complex [thus] took charge. I do not think it plausible to suppose that the Cold War and several hot wars were invented just to solve the employment problem. But certainly they have had that effect. The system had the support not only of the corporations who make profits under it and the workers who got jobs, but also of the economists who advocated government loan-expenditure as a prophylactic against stagnation. Whatever were the deeper forces leading to the hypertrophy of military power after the world war was over, certainly they could not have had such free play if the doctrine of sound finance had still been respected. It was the so-called Keynesians who persuaded successive Presidents that there is no harm in a budget deficit and left the military-industrial complex to take advantage of it. So it has come about that Keynes’ pleasant daydream was turned into a nightmare of terror.
The first to theorize this tendency toward military Keynesianism under monopoly capitalism was the Polish economist Michal Kalecki (most famous, as Robinson pointed out in the above-mentioned lecture, for having discovered the essentials of Keynes’s General Theory before Keynes himself). In a 1943 essay on “The Political Aspects of Full Employment” and in subsequent essays, Kalecki argued that monopoly capital had a deep aversion to increased civilian government spending due to its intrusion on the commodity market and the sphere of private profit, but that this did not apply in the same way to military spending, which was seen by the vested interests as adding to, rather than crowding out, profits. If absorption of the massive economic surplus of large corporate capital through increased government spending was the key to accumulation in post–Second World War U.S. capitalism, this was dependent principally on military expenditures, or what Kalecki in 1956 labeled “the armament-imperialist complex.” This resulted in a “high degree of utilization” of productive capacity and “counteracted the disrupting influence of the increase in the relative share of accumulation of big business in the national product.”
For Kalecki this new military-supported regime of accumulation that came to characterize U.S. monopoly capital by the mid-1950s established a strong political-economic foundation for its own rule “based on the following [imperial] triangle”:
- Imperialism contributes to a relatively high level of employment through expenditures on armaments and ancillary purposes and through the maintenance of a large body of armed forces and government employees.
- The mass communications media, working under the auspices of the ruling class, emits propaganda aimed at securing the support of the population for this armament-imperialist setup.
- The high level of employment and the standard of living increased considerably as compared with before the war (as a result of the rise in the productivity of labor), and this facilitated the absorption of this propaganda to the broad masses of the population.
Mass communication occupied a central place in this imperial triangle. An essential part of Kalecki’s argument was that “the mass communication media, such as the daily press, radio, and television in the United States, are largely under the control of the ruling class.” As none other than Charles E. (General Electric) Wilson, then defense mobilization director, put it in a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 26, 1951, the job of the media was to bring “public opinion, as marshaled by the press” to the support of the permanent war effort (italics added).
The result by the mid-1950s was a fairly stable militarized economy, in which intertwined imperial, political-economic, and communication factors all served to reinforce the new military-imperial order.
Kalecki observed that U.S. trade unions were “part and parcel of the armament-imperialist setup. Workers in the United States are not duller and trade union leaders are not more reactionary ‘by nature’ than in other capitalist countries. Rather, the political situation in the United States is simply, in accordance with the precepts of historical materialism, the unavoidable consequence of economic developments and of characteristics of the superstructure of monopoly capitalism in its advanced stage.” All of this pointed to what Harry Magdoff was to call the essential “one-ness of national security and business interests” that came to characterize the U.S. political economy and empire.
Many of Kalecki’s ideas were developed further by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in 1966 in Monopoly Capital. Baran and Sweezy argued there were at least five political-economic-imperial ends propelling the U.S. oligarchy in the 1950s and ’60s toward the creation of a massive military establishment: (1) defending U.S. global hegemony and the empire of capital against external threats in the form of a wave of revolutions erupting throughout the world, simplistically viewed in terms of a monolithic Communist threat centered in the Soviet Union; (2) creating an internationally “secure” platform for U.S. corporations to expand and monopolize economic opportunities abroad; (3) forming a government-sponsored research and development sector that would be dominated by big business; (4) generating a more complacent population at home, made less recalcitrant under the nationalistic influence of perpetual war and war preparation; and (5) soaking up the nation’s vast surplus productive capacity, thus helping to stave off economic stagnation, through the promotion of high-profit, low-risk (to business) military spending. The combined result of such political-economic-imperial factors was the creation of the largest, most deeply entrenched and persistent “peacetime” war machine that the world had ever seen.
Like Kalecki, Baran and Sweezy argued that the U.S. oligarchy kept a “tight rein on civilian [government] spending,” which, they suggested, “had about reached its outer limits” as a percentage of national income “by 1939,” but was nonetheless “open-handed with the military.” Government pump-priming operations therefore occurred largely through spending on wars and war preparations in the service of empire. The Pentagon naturally made sure that bases and armaments industries were spread around the United States and that numerous corporations profited from military spending, thus maximizing congressional support due to the effects on states and districts.
For members of the U.S. oligarchy and their hangers-on, the virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing military spending and economic growth represented by military Keynesianism was something to be celebrated rather than held up to criticism. Harvard economist Sumner Slichter explained to a banker’s convention in October 1949 that as long as Cold War spending persisted, a severe economic depression was “difficult to conceive.” The Cold War “increases the demand for goods, helps sustain a high level of employment, accelerates technological progress and thus helps the country to raise its standard of living. . . . So we may thank the Russians for helping make capitalism in the United States work better than ever.”
Similarly, U.S. News and World Report told its readers on May 14, 1950 (a month before the outbreak of the Korean War):
Government planners figure they have found the magic formula for almost endless good times. They are now beginning to wonder if there may not be something to perpetual motion after all. Cold war is the catalyst. Cold war is an automatic pump primer. Turn a spigot, and the public clamors for more arms spending. Turn another, the clamor ceases. Truman confidence, cockiness, is based on this “Truman formula.” Truman era of good times, President is told, can run much beyond 1952. Cold war demands, if fully exploited, are almost limitless.
In the same vein, U.S. News and World Report was to declare in 1954: “What H-bomb means to business. A long period . . . of big orders. In the years ahead, the effects of the new bomb will keep on increasing. As one appraiser puts it: ‘The H-bomb has blown Depression-thinking out the window.’” (In 1959 David Lawrence, editor of U.S. News and World Report, indicated that he viewed with equanimity the suggestion that the United States “might conceivably strike first in what has become known as ‘preemptive’ rather than ‘preventive’ war.”)
Henry Luce, the media mogul at the head of the Time-Life empire, who coined the term “the American Century,” observed in November 1957 in Fortune that the United States “can stand the load of any defense effort required to hold the power of Soviet Russia in check. It cannot, however, indefinitely stand the erosion of creeping socialism and the ceaseless extension of government activities into additional economic fields” beyond the military. This was directly in line with Kalecki’s and Baran and Sweezy’s contention that the system was tight-fisted where civilian spending was concerned and open-handed with the military.
Remarking on the success of military Keynesianism in promoting economic prosperity, the influential Harvard economist Seymour Harris wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1959: “If we treat the years from 1941 to the present as a whole, we find again that a period of record prosperity coincided with a period of heavy military outlay. . . . About one dollar out of seven went for war and preparation for war, and this expenditure was undoubtedly a stimulus to the economy.”
A military Keynesian view was close to the heart of the major U.S. planning document of the Cold War. It was called NSC-68, and it was issued in April 1950 shortly before the Korean War by the U.S. National Security Council and signed by President Truman in September 1950 (but not declassified until 1975). Drafted by Paul Nitze, then head of the policy review group in the State Department, NSC-68 intended to construct a rollback strategy against the Soviet Union. It called for a vast increase in military spending above its already high levels and considered the possibility that “in an emergency the United States could devote upward of 50 percent of its gross national product” to the military effort as in the Second World War. “From the point of view of the economy as a whole,” NSC-68 declared,
the program [of military expansion] might not result in a real decrease in the standard of living, for the economic effects of the program might be to increase the gross national product by more than the amount being absorbed for additional military and foreign assistance purposes. One of the most significant lessons of our World War II experience was that the American economy, when it operates at a level approaching full efficiency [full capacity], can provide enormous resources for purposes other than civilian consumption while simultaneously providing a high standard of living. After allowing for price changes, personal consumption expenditures rose by almost one-fifth between 1939 and 1944, even though the economy had in the meantime increased the amount of resources going into Government use by $60–$65 billion (in 1939 prices).
U.S. militarism was therefore motivated first and foremost by a global geopolitical struggle, but was at the same time seen as essentially costless (even beneficial) to the U.S. economy, which could have more guns and more butter too. It was thus viewed as a win-win solution for the U.S. empire and economy.
By the time that President Eisenhower (who played a role in this military expansion) raised concerns about what he dubbed the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address of January 17, 1961, it was already so firmly established as to constitute the permanent war economy envisioned by Charles E. Wilson. As Eisenhower’s secretary of defense, Charles Erwin Wilson—best known for having created a major flap by saying that “what is good for General Motors is good for the country”—observed in 1957, the military setup was then so built into the economy as to make it virtually irreversible. “So many Americans,” he noted, “are getting a vested interest in it: Properties, business, jobs, employment, votes, opportunities for promotion and advancement, bigger salaries for scientists and all that. . . . If you try to change suddenly you get into trouble. . . . If you shut the whole business off now, you will have the state of California in trouble because such a big percentage of the aircraft industry is in California.”
Hence, the concern that Eisenhower voiced in his farewell address about a “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” and that “we annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations” was a belated recognition of what had already become an established fact. The need for the gargantuan military-industrial complex that the United States developed in these years was not so much for purposes of economic expansion directly (though military Keynesianism pointed to its stimulating effects) but due to the reality, as Baran and Sweezy emphasized, that the capitalist world order and U.S. hegemony could only be maintained “a while longer,” in the face of rising insurgencies throughout the world, through “increasingly direct and massive intervention by American armed forces.” This entire built-in military system could not be relinquished without relinquishing empire. And so from the early Cold War years to today, the United States has flexed its military power—either directly, resulting in millions of deaths (counting those who died in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo war, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, as well as dozens of lesser conflicts), or indirectly, as a means to intimidate.
The most important left analysts of these developments in the 1950s and ’60s, Kalecki, Baran, Sweezy, and Magdoff, insisted— going against the dominant U.S. Cold War ideology—that the cause of U.S. military spending was capitalist empire, rather than the need to contain the Soviet threat. The benefits of military spending to monopoly capital, moreover, guaranteed its continuation, barring a major social upheaval. The decade and a half since the fall of the Soviet Union has confirmed the accuracy of this assessment. The euphoria of the “peace dividend” following the end of the Cold War evaporated almost immediately in the face of new imperial requirements. This was a moment of truth for U.S. capitalism, demonstrating how deeply entrenched were its military-imperial interests. By the end of the 1990s U.S. military spending, which had been falling, was on its way up again.
Today, in what has been called a “unipolar world,” U.S. military spending for purposes of empire is rapidly expanding—to the point that it rivals the entire rest of the world put together. When it is recognized that most of the other top ten military-spending nations are U.S. allies or junior partners, it makes the U.S. military ascendancy even more imposing. Only the reality of global empire (and the effects of this on the internal body politic) can explain such an overwhelming destructive power. As Atlantic correspondent Robert Kaplan proudly proclaimed in 2005: “By the turn of the twenty-first century the United States military had already appropriated the entire earth, and was ready to flood the most obscure areas of it with troops at a moment’s notice.”
Excerpted from “Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy” by Robert W. McChesney. Copyright © 2014 by Robert W. McChesney. Reprinted by arrangement with Monthly Review Press. All rights reserved.
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