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Robert McChesney: We Need to Advocate Radical Solutions to Systemic Problems

Bob McChesney. (Photo: Monthly Review Press)

Part of the Series

Robert McChesney, a leader in challenging the corporate media’s role in degrading democracy, carries on this fight with Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century. In the book, he makes an urgent and compelling argument for ending communication monopolies and building a post-capitalist democracy that serves people over corporations. You can obtain the book now with a contribution to Truthout by clicking here.

The following is the Truthout interview with Robert McChesney about his latest book, Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century.

Mark Karlin: In a Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week interview in 2013 about your book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, you reflected profound pessimism about the capture of the internet by large corporations – and the evolution of net consumers into marketing “products.” Is the trend of the co-option of the web by a few large corporations accelerating?

Robert McChesney: Whether the process is accelerating is a difficult question to measure or to answer. That the process exists and that it is the dominant fact about the internet is not controversial. Barring radical policy intervention, the domination of the internet by a handful of gigantic monopolists will continue and remain the order of the day. After Digital Disconnect was published, I had a meeting in October 2013 with Sue Gardner, who was then the person in charge of Wikipedia. Sue told me that it would be impossible for Wikipedia or anything like it to get launched by then, because the system was locked down by the giants and privileged commercial values. I was left with the impression that Wikipedia got in just before the deadline, so to speak.

If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy.

What is striking about this corporate monopolization of the internet is that all the wealth and power has gone to a small number of absolutely enormous firms. As we enter 2015, 13 of the 33 most valuable corporations in the United States are internet firms, and nearly all of them enjoy monopolistic market power as economists have traditionally used the term. If you continue to scan down the list there are precious few internet firms to be found. There is not much of a middle class or even an upper-middle class of internet corporations to be found.

This poses a fundamental problem for democracy, though it is one that mainstream commentators and scholars appear reluctant to acknowledge: If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy. Concentrated economic power invariably overwhelms the political equality democracy requires, leading to routinized corruption and an end of the rule of law. That is where we are today in the United States.

You were a co-founder with John Nichols of Free Press, the leading citizens’ advocate for net neutrality. Do you have any expectation that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], headed by a former lobbyist and shill for mass communication corporations, will actually preserve net neutrality – such as it is – by bestowing “common carrier” status on the internet?

Everything structurally points to a pessimistic answer, as your question implies. There are grounds for hope. First, understand that what net neutrality is trying to prevent is the privatization of the internet – its conversion to cable TV – by the handful of behemoths that have created a cartel for internet service provision (ISP), most notably Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. These firms are parasites who enjoy spectacular profitability due to their ability to build on government monopoly licenses and their ownership of politicians and regulators. But the balance of the corporate community has no particular reason to be enthusiastic about eliminating net neutrality.

When people tune out politics, they are not being hip or cool or ironic. They are being played.

It will simply mean that the ISPs will be able to shake them down for more money to have access to their networks. The ISP cartel has tried to buy off or at least neutralize key internet monopolists with varying degrees of success, but they cannot make an especially compelling argument. Corporations like Google are frustrated by the crappy, overpriced service the ISP cartels provide, and it is affecting their business models. So proponents of net neutrality have some important moneyed interests who are sympathetic to their cause. And in American politics today – where democracy in the textbook sense does not exist – that means everything. It is worth noting that in the scores of US cities with municipally owned and operated broadband networks, local businesses form an enthusiastic base of support. They love getting much better service – for them and their customers – at a lower cost.

Second, there is near unanimous public support for net neutrality among those who know what the issue is and what it is about. This is true across the political spectrum. Free Press has led the organizing coalition and the support is simply off the charts. Behind much of the so-called grassroots support for abolishing net neutrality among (the absurdly misnamed) “libertarian” groups on the right or civil rights groups of the left, one can find a direct or indirect payoff from the cartel. So a politician like Barack Obama used his unconditional support for net neutrality as a rallying cry for his presidential campaign in 2007-08. That has put him in an uncomfortable position in view of the cartel’s pressure on the FCC to accede to the cartel’s wishes. But Obama, to his credit, has recently restated his commitment to net neutrality and his support for seeing the internet regulated like a telecommunication industry would be by law. So there are grounds for hope.

Your latest book, Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy, returns – as you almost always do in your writing – to the issue of how the concentration of capital and corporate behemoths stifle democracy. Do you have any expectation – given how the internet offered so much promise of being a tool to invigorate a robust democracy and then was co-opted – that the course of unbridled capitalism can be reversed?

How the tension between really existing capitalism and democracy plays out in the United States is impossible to predict, but it is the definitional issue of our times and will be until it is resolved. Every other issue of note – from militarism and the environment to the quality of our lives and the status of our liberties – runs through it. In the book, I address the pessimism that pervades our times because of the sense that the powers-that-be are all-powerful, and resistance is therefore futile. Although understandable, and a safe position to take, it is also absurdly ahistorical. Humans invariably think that tomorrow will be an extension of today. Change is impossible to anticipate in a precise sense. Then once it happens everyone acts like they saw it coming. What we can do is understand the problems in our system and be prepared to resolve them in a humane and equitable manner when they grow so severe as to create crisis points. We do not have the luxury of giving up, because pessimism is self-fulfilling. And, as I discuss in the book, those in power are obsessed with depoliticizing society because they know we have the numbers on our side and they cannot win a fair fight. When people tune out politics, they are not being hip or cool or ironic. They are being played.

How do two of your chapters, “The US Imperial Triangle and Military Spending” and “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” illustrate the degeneration of capitalism in the US?

US capitalism is fundamentally flawed, and has a strong tendency toward stagnation. Left to its own devises, without exogenous factors, the private economy cannot generate sufficient jobs and incomes for full employment. That means low growth rates, rising poverty and growing inequality. Due to popular pressure, government politics can arrest these tendencies, with public works programs, progressive taxation, support for unions and the like. Capitalists generally oppose these measures as an impingement on their prerogatives and their control over the economy. Even in Scandinavia, where working-class victories created a much-admired social democracy (unless you are a FOX News fan), capitalists lie in wait always keen to reverse the victories and turn back the clock. In the United States, military spending became the one form of government stimulus spending that faced no serious opposition from capitalists coming out of World War II, and instead it created an army of corporate supporters: Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. Militarism is now so hard-wired into really existing capitalism in the United States that the call to reduce it to a level approaching sanity becomes a demand to rethink the entire structure of the economy.

Civilian spending remained constant because a significant portion of what had been social spending was converted to prison spending, which is included in the civilian (non-military) spending category.

Since the 1970s, the far right has come to dominate American politics and both political parties have become more preoccupied with serving large corporations and billionaire investors – and much less concerned with the needs of the general population. In doing research on the matter of whether Obama might launch a new “New Deal” upon his election in 2008, my friend John Bellamy Foster and I wrote an essay that is in the book arguing that the key determinant of a new New Deal will be if the amount of government spending for civilian (non-military) purposes increases as a percentage of GDP above the level it had been stuck at since the New Deal raised it in the late 1930s. We argued that it was highly unlikely because of the strong corporate political pressures that exist, and we have been proven right.

But we were also struck by the fact that civilian spending at all levels of government had not changed much as a percentage of GDP for decades, despite all the right-wing attacks on social spending that have dominated the past three or four decades. How could that be? The answer became clear: Civilian spending remained constant because a significant portion of what had been social spending was converted to prison spending, which is included in the civilian (non-military) spending category. Factoring this in, the actual provision of social services had declined as a percentage of GDP. And now, as with the military, there is a huge private sector that benefits from the prison-industrial complex and lobbies for its expansion at every turn, while no major corporate interests oppose the expansion of prisons.

What does this illustrate about the degeneration of US capitalism? As a system, it requires extensive government spending, but it tends toward military and police spending as the preferred option, and that creates all sorts of spectacular problems for anything remotely close to democracy. This point was well understood by the [constitutional] framers who wanted to eliminate as much as possible the scourge of militarism from coming into existence. As Madison and Jefferson repeatedly wrote, a nation that is permanently at war cannot remain free. Militarism generated secrecy, inequality, corruption and what we would call jingoism that in combination would overwhelm democratic institutions and practices.

Truer words have never been written.

What do you mean by the term “post-capitalist” democracy?

If one believes, as I do, that the evidence points squarely to the conclusion that really existing capitalism is fundamentally flawed and increasingly incompatible with democracy and possibly human existence, then establishing an alternative is of paramount importance. I should qualify this immediately. I use the term “really existing capitalism” to describe what actually exists in the United States (and, to varying degrees, worldwide): massive corporations, unfettered greed, corrupt governance, hollowed-out democracy, endless corporate propaganda, obscene inequality, crumbling physical and social infrastructure, crappy, dead-end jobs and a mindless, narcissistic culture. I do not refer to the PR pabulum spewed by politicians and pundits about free markets, entrepreneurs, upward mobility, meritocracy and the invisible hand. That has as much to do with capitalism in the United States today as paeans to workers democracy did to describing the Soviet experience.

The problem with capitalism is ultimately that it radically increases the productive capacity of society but it keeps control over the wealth in the hands of profit-driven individuals and firms.

Why not call the alternative socialism? Well, I am a socialist and I understand that [socialism] to be a system where the vast wealth of society is controlled democratically and put to social purposes; it is not controlled by a narrow sliver of society to do with as suits them. I think the general Marxist assessment of capitalism’s fatal flaw applies today more than ever: The problem with capitalism is ultimately that it radically increases the productive capacity of society but it keeps control over the wealth in the hands of profit-driven individuals and firms, who control how this potential will be developed to suit their own interests. So it is that the productivity of the average worker is many times greater today than is was 50 years ago. But that increase in productivity has not translated into higher living standards, a shorter working week and/or a huge buildout of the infrastructure. Instead we see living standards in decline, inequality mushrooming and infrastructure in varying states of collapse, while there is a record number of gazillionaires. These are clear signs of an economic system that no longer plays a productive role and needs to be replaced.

But the term socialism begs as many questions as it answers and from my experience tends to get people off-track. I think we have to begin tangible discussions and debates over how to take important aspects of our society where capitalist control is clearly dangerous and inimical to democratic practices and values and eliminate it there. For example, take the profit out of militarism and prisons. No one should have a vested interest in war. Take the profit out of financial speculation, that serves no public good. Take the profit out of energy, if we agree that we have a handful of mega-corporations flossing their teeth with politicians’ underpants while the earth gets flame-broiled like a marshmallow. Let’s create nonprofit, accountable alternatives. The point is to replace profit-driven institutions with democratically run alternatives in key sectors, all the while extending democratic freedoms and practices. I could go on and on.

I have no particular antagonism to small business, and a great deal of respect for the people who launch and run them. I started two concerns in my life, one a for-profit rock magazine in Seattle and another a nonprofit public interest group called Free Press. Both succeeded not by exploiting the labor of its workers as much as exploiting the labor of its owners and management. We worked our butts off. I see small business as an extension of labor as much as an extension of capital. In this sense, I am influenced by Lincoln.

So to me the debate should not concern whether some dude selling falafel sandwiches out of his van near a football game should have his enterprise nationalized. That is idiotic. The debate has to be whether we can afford to have so much of the commanding heights of our economy under the control of billionaires and monopolists who use their immense power to enrich themselves but impoverish the rest of us. Until we start having that debate we will not make much headway on the great problems we face.

Can you expand upon your statement in the book that “many liberals who wish to reform and humanize capitalism are uncomfortable with seemingly radical movements, and often work to distance themselves from them”? What are the implications of such a stance?

One of the ironies of American politics is that an element of the progressive community recoils from what I just said because they fear it will antagonize people in power and limit their effectiveness when, say, Democrats win office. The argument is that we can only argue for positions that are acceptable to the mainstream liberal community or else we will lose our ability to influence policy because we will get cast into the wilderness as certified weirdos. The evidence is now in: that approach does not work.

What was most striking about the Occupy movement was how it instantly changed the discussion – albeit briefly – on inequality. Even the Republicans mouthed pieties that this was a real problem that needs a policy solution. That shows what happens when people take principled positions and stick to them. It also shows what happens when people take to the streets for nonviolent protest. It is why the right to assemble and redress grievances is as important a part of the First Amendment as freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The paradox is that when there are radicals in the streets raising hell on a principled position, it creates space for the “inside-the-system” crowd to actually get reforms accomplished. The 1960s and early 1970s is a great example of this. But the “inside-the-system” progressive crowd never quite gets that. To some extent it is because they gain their legitimacy by being border policemen, and denigrating those outside the corridors of power as irresponsible and not serious players.

How do you respond to those who argue that revolutionary economic change in the US is not possible because those who earn the minimum wage or are unemployed as a result of capitalist indifference often are ardently pro-capitalist and anti-socialist? This is documented particularly among whites who have only a high school education. What is the disconnect here in getting this demographic to join in systemic economic change that would benefit them?

Neil Postman tells the great story of two priests in a monastery who enjoy smoking every day during their morning prayers. They begin to wonder if this is sacrilegious, so they each wrote to the pope to get his benediction for their daily smoking fest. The first priest gets a letter back from the pope saying it is an insult to the faith to smoke during prayer time. The second priest gets a letter from the pope saying it is wonderful to smoke during prayer time. They looked at the two letters they had sent to the pope. The first priest asked the pope if it was OK to smoke during morning prayers and the pope was aghast in his response. The second priest asked if it was OK to go into a prayer while having a morning smoke. The pope was delighted to see the priest extending his spiritual commitment.

The problems we face are social problems – not individual ones – and require social solutions. That means political movements and activism.

The moral of the story: It is how one asks a question that shapes the type of answer you get. Because many of the best-known pollsters are stuck within a mainstream framework their questions accept and reinforce that framework. So one could probably ask a series of questions of white working-class people on fairness and justice that would make them look amenable to radical social change. These are not the sorts of questions that generally get asked.

It is striking that in recent years a few major pollsters have asked people whether they preferred capitalism or socialism. This would seem a loaded question because Americans know nothing about socialism except that it is a pejorative term to dismiss anyone whose ideas are considered out of bounds. Yet in recent years socialism has been almost as popular across the population as capitalism, and more popular among young Americans. That doesn’t say much about socialism, but it tells us a great deal about what the acceptance of really existing capitalism actually is. And that includes a lot for white working-class people.

This does not diminish the basis of your question, and the series of significant issues it raises, in particular, white supremacy and white racism and the role it plays. There are times that I am optimistic that we have made important headway on this issue and times that I am troubled by the lack of progress. It is a central issue in political organizing. In the book, I have a long chapter on the prison-industrial complex, and it is impossible to understand that phenomenon except through the lens of white racism.

You are a professor of communications at the University of Illinois. Are you seeing increased activism for economic change among the young people you teach and come in contact with?

Not really. There is clearly a willingness to take a harder look at capitalism and be critical of the obvious problems of the economic system today that was largely absent prior to 2008. Even my most conservative students want to get past the PR BS on free markets and understand why their future looks so grim. Students are more open-minded.

But the depoliticization of the past 40 years still weighs like a nightmare on their brains. Students are encouraged to see the world as it is and the solution is an individual solution, not a social one. Being “political” is a sign that someone is not cool and is a weirdo, and God forbid that is the last thing anyone wants to be accused of. This is an issue I write about at some length in the book, because those atop our society regard it as mission critical to keep the nation depoliticized. Their survival depends upon it.

But the problems we face are social problems – not individual ones – and require social solutions. That means political movements and activism. I am optimistic we are moving toward a more political moment as there really is no other credible option.

The book contains a chapter on the 2011 Wisconsin uprising against Scott Walker. What do you say to people who dismiss the historic, massive and lengthy protests in Madison as an anomaly – that the re-election of Scott Walker as governor of the state this year (2014) indicates that the revolt had no long-term impact?

It is too early to know what to make of the Wisconsin uprising, and to dismiss it categorically at this point is absurd. I was at the demonstrations almost every day for six weeks, and I was there as a member of the crowd and not as a “leader.” It was an extraordinary experience. What it taught me was that there is a wellspring of progressive and humane politics in people that is being repressed. The energy, the enthusiasm, the intelligence, the solidarity of the demonstrations was entirely unexpected and almost defies description. (Fortunately it does not, or I could not have written a chapter on it.)

The experience, like Occupy later in the year, raises all sorts of serious questions and issues for organizers going forward. But the idea that the re-election of Scott Walker proves it flopped seems wrong to me, though I can understand the idea. Walker’s victory in the 2012 recall election and then his 2014 re-election has much more to do with: 1) the idiocy of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which ran incomprehensibly terrible campaigns, especially in 2012; 2) how low voter turnout is crucial to right-wing success – Scott Walker could not win a statewide election in a presidential year when the turnout is closer to 60 percent than 40 percent of adults; 3) money means everything and Scott Walker had unbelievable amounts of it, largely from out-of-state gazillionaires; 4) the absence of journalism means people were increasingly reliant upon asinine TV political ads; and 5) Scott Walker had enough money to flood the airwaves with his propaganda. And it was world-class propaganda.

The importance of media reform in achieving a robust democracy is something you frequently return to. Can you briefly discuss the top three media reform steps that you recommend at the end of the book?

I argue that some of the most brilliant left thinkers of the postwar era moved toward a position that democratizing the media system was central to creating a democratic socialism. I did this research with my buddy Duke Foster because much of it has been ignored or forgotten with the demise of the New Left and the long winter of neoliberalism in the 1970s.

I believe that is still the case, and I believe that communication is an area where there are immediate demands to be developed that can be foundational to a post-capitalist democracy in the United States. I also believe – in fact, I know from personal experience – that each of these issues has the potential for support outside of the political left, even among self-described conservatives. First, let’s eliminate the ISP cartel of Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. Those mega-corporations have divvied up the broadband market and as a result the US pays a fortune for crappy service for broadband, cable, satellite and cell phones. These firms are parasites pure and simple, and play no productive role. There is a magnificent already successful alternative with municipal broadband, and we should have that nationally. These firms – all based on government monopoly franchises and their control of politicians and regulators – have to go. Broadband should be ubiquitous and free.

Ironically, as I motioned before, as radical as this sounds, it is actually a measure that has great appeal to businesses that do not benefit directly from the existence of the cartel. Businesses would love to lower their own costs and also have much better speeds and service for their markets.

What we need is to recognize that journalism is a public good, something society desperately needs but that the market cannot and will not generate in sufficient quantity or quality.

Second, as I also mentioned above, the digital revolution has spawned a dozen or so super-monopolies that dominate not only communication, but capitalism itself. The digital revolution permeates every aspect of the economy. These dozen or so firms simply have too much power for democracy to successfully co-exist with it. It is not just economic power, but political power, that is the concern. This is not simply a left-wing concern. Indeed, it was Henry Simons, Milton Friedman’s mentor at the University of Chicago, who said monopolies were unacceptable, because they destroyed competitive capitalism as well as genuine democracy and the rule of law. The laissez faire champion Simons said if the giants could not be effectively broken into smaller pieces, they should be taken over by the government and run like the post office. I think that is a good way to understand what to do with these giants, especially now that we know the dreadful consequences of their lucrative and secretive marriage with the national security state.

Finally, the resources going toward journalism are in free fall collapse, as the commercial model is evaporating. I have written about this at length for years and will not repeat the analysis here. Nor will I discuss how the absence of journalism produces an existential crisis for any known theory of self-government, and with that the preservation of our freedoms. In a nutshell, advertising provided the lion’s share of support for news media for the past 125 years, and, with the internet, that support has disappeared for the most part. Hence we have maybe 40 percent of the working reporters and editors as we did a generation ago on a per capita basis. It is only going to get worse. (In the book, I have some new research on how Walter Lippmann assessed the last great crisis in journalism almost 100 years ago. It has some important lessons for us.)

What we need is to recognize that journalism is a public good, something society desperately needs but that the market cannot and will not generate in sufficient quantity or quality. We need extensive public support but without government control over who gets the money. That is the great public policy issue we face and a lot is riding on whether we rise to the occasion. The same problem faces every nation on the planet, though each country has somewhat different circumstances.

In the book, I develop an idea that I have written about a good deal in the past, the notion of the $200 voucher. Basically every person over 18 can allocate $200 of government money to any recognized nonprofit news medium of her choice. The core idea comes from Milton Friedman, who accepted that it was necessary to have government funding for education, but did not want to have government-run schools. Friedman’s voucher scheme proved to be a crappy idea for public education, but it is a brilliant idea for news media. You get up to a $40 billion annual subsidy with no government control over who gets the money. Anyone who accepts the vouchers cannot also accept advertising so there is no competition for what little remains of commercial news media. Anything produced as a result of the vouchers must be put online for free immediately and enter the public domain, so anyone can use the work. And people can change their allocation every year so there is tremendous competition to win support.

The idea is becoming increasingly popular. I think it is an idea whose time has come.

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