Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), described by John Pilger in 2009 as “perhaps the only book that tells the truth about the 44th president of the United States.” Street’s Crashing the Tea Party (2010, co-authored with Truthout contributor Anthony DiMaggio) is “essential reading for anyone concerned about the changing nature of American politics” and helped solidify Street’s status as one of “America’s most important social and political critics” (Henry Giroux).Described by Cornel West as “the most acute observer and insightful analyst of the ‘Obama Phenomena,'” Paul Street is the author of seven books, numerous project studies, and hundreds of articles published around the world. His publications include the prophetic, “lucid and penetrating” (Noam Chomsky) volume
No longer content to limit his focus to one side of the dominant and narrow US political spectrum – either Obama Democrats or Teapublicans – Street has turned his attention to the plutocratic American system as a whole. Below we post the introduction to Street’s latest and most important and sweeping book yet: They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, September 2014). Inspired in part by the Occupy movement or “moment” of 2011, Street’s new volume harkens back to John Carpenter’s campy but classic film They Live (1987). Carpenter portrayed the United States as subject to invasion and control by alien invaders who wore corporate suits, distributed wealth and power upward, subverted democracy, managed minds and warmed the earth’s climate – all in the name of free enterprise and economic growth. They Rule moves from Reagan era science fiction to the nitty-gritty details of how the US ruling class rules and why it matters in our current 21st century New Gilded Age. According to Gar Alperovitz, They Rule is “aserious, useful, and well-written and well-researched guide to the challenges we face and the genuine options we have as American corporate capitalism and its politics continue to decay.”
The introductory chapter published here sets the stage for They Rule’s “needed analysis of why American inequality became so extreme, and how the rich use political and economic power to keep it that way” (John Berg, Suffolk University).
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John Carpenter’s Magic Sunglasses and the Real Choice
Who could have imagined Occupy Wall Street (OWS), its urgent and fierce opposition to the US financial, corporate, and economic elite, and its rapid spread across US cities large, medium, and small in the late summer and early fall of 2011? Several prominent left commentators seemed prescient in their pre-Occupy writings and ruminations, including no less than Noam Chomsky as well as Charles Derber, Yale Magrass,1 Sheldon Wolin, and several others we will mention as we explore this territory. Perhaps no one, however, presaged the themes of OWS as early or as vividly as the filmmaker John Carpenter.
John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, Escape from New York, etc.) deserves special credit for partly envisioning the Occupy Movement as early as 1987. All the way back then, he penned and directed what the prolific left social critic and historian Mike Davis calls Carpenter’s “subversive tour de force” – They Live, a “depicti[on of ] the Age of Reagan as a catastrophic alien invasion.” In Carpenter’s brilliant, outwardly campy spoof, America is ruled by aliens disguised as members of the business and professional elite. The extraterrestrials colonize America and the Earth, dismantling the nation in the name of “the free market.” They speak in hushed tones to one another through small radios installed in Rolex watches that symbolize their elevated status while providing a safe conduit for intra-alien communication. In a vast underground complex whose existence is kept secret from the hated human herd, they communicate in outwardly idealistic terms of their real objectives – ruthless economic exploitation for the galactic Few sold as “growth” and “development” for the earthly Many – to a large audience of fellow aliens and a minority of well-off and co-opted human collaborators. Hyper-mobile across the galaxy in their shiny business suits, they send resources off-planet and manipulate the citizenry through subtle, subliminal forms of thought control encoded in advertisements and other corporate mass media content.
“They’re free enterprisers,” a leading human resister of the alien presence explains: “The Earth is just another developing planet – their Third World.”
“We are like a natural resource to them,” a different resister elaborates. “Deplete the planet and move on to another. They want benign indifference. They want us drugged.”
Some humans are cultivated for co-optation, rewarded for their collaboration with fancy jobs, money, and consumer goods. They are invited to sumptuous banquets where aliens dressed as business chiefs regale them with the latest data on the robust “per capita income growth” enjoyed by earthlings who cooperate with the extraterrestrials’ “quest for multi-dimensional expansion. . . . The gains have been substantial,” one such alien explains, “both for us and for you, the human power elite.”
Resistance is futile and there is no alternative, so you might as well play ball with the invaders and enjoy the rewards. So the collaborationist story goes, encouraged by bribery and media messages selling personal consumption, keeping up with fashion, and narcissistic self-display as the meaning of “the good life.” As one turncoat explains to They Live’s resister heroes near the movie’s end,
It’s business, that’s all it is. There ain’t no countries anymore. They’re running the whole show. They own everything, the whole goddamned planet. They can do whatever they want. What’s wrong with having it good for a change? And they’re gonna let us have it good if we just help them. They’re gonna leave us alone. Let us make some money. You could have a taste of that good life too. . . . We all sell out every day. Might as well be on the winning team.
Those who cannot be co-opted or numbed by dominant media and consumer gratifications and who dare to question and challenge alien and state-capitalist authority are designated as “terrorists” and “communists who want to bring down the government.” They are subjected to violent repression by a heavily armed high-tech police state, whose tools of surveillance and repression include airborne spy cameras that prefigure low-flying military police and border patrol drones currently being prepared for use inside the United States.
To make matters worse for the mostly working-class American human subjects, they struggle with strong internal divisions of race and ethnicity that are richly cultivated and enjoyed by the wealthy few in their Machiavellian quest to divide and conquer. “Maybe they love it,” They Live’s leading black protagonist muses, “seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding off our cold fucking hearts.”
Along the way, the aliens’ economic system generates unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and methane, heating the environment in ways that fit their own home climate but threaten life on Earth.
The aliens are opposed by a revolutionary human cadre that has developed special sunglasses and contact lenses that decode the deadening messages of the alien-run corporate mass media and reveal the repulsive nonhuman identity of many of the privileged. When the glasses are donned, billboards, magazines, newspapers, and television programs are shown to express their real intended meaning, telling humans to “obey,” “consume,” “watch tv,” “sleep,” “conform,” “submit,” “buy,” “honor apathy,” “marry and reproduce,” and “work eight hours.” Bills of money are shown to say “this is your god,” while billboards are seen to proclaim “no thought,” “do not question authority,” and “no imagination.”
The cadre oversees a makeshift campsite of mostly poor and unemployed working-class Americans. Sitting behind a threadbare church in the shadow of Los Angeles’s downtown financial district, the multiracial and multiethnic camp captures the rising poverty and joblessness of the reckless get-rich-quick Reagan years and harkens back to previous episodes of mass homelessness in American history.
The campsite is brutally cleared by a militarized Los Angeles Police Department early in They Live, a key moment in protagonist Nada’s (played by professional wrestler Roddy Piper) political evolution. Reviewing this scene as I prepared this manuscript for publication, I was struck by how closely it presaged the police-state clearances of Occupy Movement encampments in the fall of 2011.
The cadre struggles to escape detection and repression as it seeks to break into the all-powerful media to tell ordinary Americans what they have dis- covered about who is really running and ruining the country. The movie ends when Nada and his black construction worker comrade Frank Armitage (played by Keith David) succeed in penetrating the aliens’ corporate media headquarters to disable the aliens’ great satellite cloaking mechanism, thereby exposing the alien identity of the privileged on television and in daily life. The uncovering portends the coming of a great popular rebellion.
Beneath the science-fiction and horror-film surface, of course, Carpenter was portraying the subordination of late twentieth-century America to its own unelected dictatorship of corporate and financial wealth – what would become known twenty-three years later as “the 1%.” “Who,” Davis wrote in the wake of Occupy’s emergence,
can ever forget the brilliant early scenes [in They Live] of the huge third world shantytown reflected across the Hollywood Freeway by the sinister mirror glass of Bunker Hill’s corporate skyscrapers? Or Carpenter’s por- trayal of the billionaire bankers and evil mediacrats ruling over a pulverized American working class living in tents on a rubble-strewn hillside and begging for casual jobs?. . . From this negative equality of homelessness and despair, and thanks to the magic sunglasses, the proletariat finally achieves interracial unity, sees through the subliminal deceptions of capitalism, and gets angry. Very angry.2
The Occupy Movement was dismantled before it achieved anything like interracial proletarian unity, the disablement of modern mass media and advertising, or a popular rebellion that removed corporate exploiters from their privileged perches. Still, with some real if short-lived help from the mass media itself,3 Occupy Wall Street and the hundreds of copycat populist encampments it inspired across the country donned and passed out something of a version of Carpenter’s magic sunglasses in a way that not only held the news cycle for a few weeks in 2011 but altered the political discourse and consciousness of the nation ever since. It brought the language of class and the inseparably linked problems of economic inequality and plutocracy (the latter term refers to government by and for the wealthy) to the front and center of the national political culture like no time since the 1930s.4 And that is no small part of why it was taken apart by coordinated state repression within and beyond New York City, where a brutal police-state eviction was ordered by Michael Bloomberg, a leading financial titan and media mogul who also happened to be the mayor of the world’s leading capitalist city – something John Carpenter would certainly have appreciated.
This volume is not, however, primarily about the Occupy Movement, possibly better described as “the Occupy Moment.” The primary focus here is on key questions posed by Occupy, questions that have also been raised by previous generations of labor, farmer, socialist, anarchist, and populist protestors and critics, including Carpenter (whose They Live heroes are heirs to the antiplutocratic rebels and revolutionaries portrayed in such past American novels as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited, John Steinbeck ‘s In Dubious Battle, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up): Who owns and rules America beneath and beyond the claims and indeed the pretence of democratic popular governance? Why and how does it matter that the nation’s economy, society, culture, and politics are torn and shaped and deformed by stark class disparities and a steep concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a privileged few, a “ruling class”? What is the price – or more precisely what are the prices – of that savage inequality? How did and do the privileged few gain their remarkable wealth and power, and how do they keep it? How does the ruling class rule, over and against the desire of most Americans for a more roughly equal and genuinely democratic, not plutocratic and savagely unequal, society? What can “we the people” do to resist and end that rule in defense of democracy, the common good, a livable natural environment, and a decent future?
In tackling these and related questions, I have been struck at the signifi- cant extent to which the answers resonate with key themes in Carpenter’s film. To be sure, the real Earth-specific story of US ruling-class power is far more complicated and detailed than what can be conveyed in a short and often deliberately comic, cartoon-like sci-fi horror film like They Live. Disentangling that story has involved consulting a vast nonfiction literature and the reflections of numerous scholars and critics, including leading “power elite” analysts like George William Domhoff and Thomas R. Dye – none more deeply and recurrently insightful than Noam Chomsky (who will be quoted and cited more than a few times in the present volume). Still, having returned from that nonfiction journey and conducted my own empirical and primary source research, I am struck by the haunting relevance of They Live’s nightmarish vision – a nation ruled by amoral, sociopathic, hyper-mobile, highly organized, and socially (if not literally) alien capitalists who operate within and beyond national boundaries as they cultivate human divisions and exploit mass media and culture along with the high-tech repressive apparatus of the state to propagate mass consumerism, individualism, narcissism, and an ideology of endless growth and to demobilize, depress, delude, diminish, demoralize, degrade, and drug the citizenry and the democratic ideal. Along the way, “they” advance a savagely soulless and unequal political-economic order that warms the planet to a dangerous degree while dismantling the nation in service to endless selfish wealth accumulation – the common good be damned.
“Neither Is It a Democracy in Any Recognizable Form”
As the Occupy Movement was being dismantled by armed state forces for having committed the sin of rendering visible the nation’s real rulers and some of the hidden injuries of America’s class hierarchy, I was contacted by a television reporter from Iran. “How,” the reporter wanted to know, “can America credibly claim to advance democracy in the Middle East and across the world when it crushes freedom of expression and protest in its own city streets? ” “Why,” another reporter at the same network asked me, “do American people tolerate the control of their government and politics by a small and wealthy elite, what Occupy Wall Street calls ‘the 1 percent’? “
This book is my belated answer to tackle these difficult and unpleasant questions. The contemporary United States, I find in the volume, is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. It is something in between or perhaps different altogether: a corporate-managed state-capitalist pseudo-democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profit. It is a corporate and financial plutocracy whose managers generally prefer to rule through outwardly democratic and noncoercive means since leading American corporations and their servants have worked effectively at draining and disabling democracy’s radical and progressive potential by propagandizing, dulling, pacifying, deadening, overextending, overstressing, atomizing, and demobilizing the citizenry. At the same time, American state and capitalist elites remain ready, willing, and able to maintain their power with the help from ever more sinister and sophisticated methods and tools of repression, brutality, and coercive control.
The contemporary United States may not be a fascist state. But this hardly means it deserves to be considered anything like a genuine democracy. As the brilliant Australian filmmaker, author, and commentator John Pilger (long a close and knowledgeable follower of US politics) noted in January 2012, as the presidential election spectacle took center stage in American mass media,
America is now a land of epidemic poverty and barbaric prisons: the consequence of a “market” extremism which, under Obama, has prompted the transfer of $14 trillion in public money to criminal enterprises in Wall Street. The victims are mostly young jobless, homeless, incarcerated African-Americans, betrayed by the first black president. The historic corollary of a perpetual war state, this is not fascism, not yet, but neither is it democracy in any recognisable form, regardless of the placebo politics that will consume the news until November. The presidential campaign, says the Washington Post, will “feature a clash of philosophies rooted in distinctly different views of the economy.” This is patently false. The circumscribed task of journalism on both sides of the Atlantic is to create the pretence of political choice where there is none.5
As veteran political scientist Sheldon Wolin argued in 2008, the United States may have “morphed into a new and strange kind of political hybrid, one where economic and state powers are conjoined and virtually unbridled.” Wolin’s chilling book Democracy Incorporated describes a mass-incarcerationist and hyper-militarized nation “where citizens are politically uninterested and submissive – and where elites are eager to keep them that way. At best,” Wolin argued, “the nation has become a ‘managed democracy’ where the public is shepherded, not sovereign. At worst it is a place where corporate power no longer answers to state controls” and where “unchecked economic power risks verging on total power and has its own unnerving pathologies” (emphasis added). In Wolin’s view, America has the potential to become modern history’s third great totalitarian formation, succeeding the brown fascism of Hitler’s Germany and the red fascism of Stalin’s Russia.6
Particularly “unnerving” is the possibility that this formation could be the most sophisticated and powerful species of authoritarian rule yet developed. As the brilliant Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey noted back in the pivotal Ronald Reagan–Margaret Thatcher era, the greatest and most potent long-term menace to “the liberal-democratic freedoms we are all supposed to enjoy” has not come from the 1984 “left” but rather in the deceptively “uncoercive” form of “a widespread social and political indoctrination” in the ostensibly liberal West – “an indoctrination which promotes business interests as everyone’s interests and in the process fragments the community and closes off individual and critical thought.” The critical homeland and headquarters of this indoctrination and the oxymoronic “corporate-managed democracy” it breeds is the outwardly freedom-loving United States, where the art and science of “taking the risk out of democracy” (something different and arguably even more dangerous than twentieth-century fascism’s and Stalinism’s open and explicit bludgeoning of democracy) have, for various historical reasons, been carried to new levels.7
Clearly, however, the American ruling class is not so confident of its success in softly de-fanging democracy as to forego extremely dangerous forms of hard authoritarian coercion and control. Deadly tools of brute repression remain a highly relevant and increasingly significant part of the contemporary power elite’s privilege-preserving toolbox when a significant number of Americans throw off the habit of submission. At the same time, the US elite continues to rely also on its ability to exploit numerous divisions within the nation’s demoted citizenry or ex-citizenry – divisions that must be overcome by activists who want to have any chance of saving America from the depredations of the rich and powerful.
But authoritarianism is not the worst threat posed by the super-rich and their profits system. The single greatest and most imminent peril is environmental collapse, the death of livable ecology and hence of the prospects for a livable future – a topic that will be addressed repeatedly in this book. It’s “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky,” the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros wrote in 2001, adding a critical environmental caveat to Rosa Luxemburg’s famous slogan (“socialism or barbarism”) on capitalism’s long-run tendency to breed authoritarianism, repression, and war.8
The chief beneficiaries of the “new and strange kind of political hybrid” are found among the richest slice of Americans, those for whom the Occupy Movement gave the instantly famous shorthand designation “the 1%.” Alongside the ever more imminent specter of ecological destruction – itself the single greatest current risk and inextricably bound up with the intimately related problems of capitalism and inequality (so I will argue) – and the ever-present danger of nuclear war, this great authoritarian threat (potentially “totalitarian” by Wolin’s account) underlines the desperately “fierce urgency of now” (to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) when it comes to growing and multiplying the nascent American democracy upsurge that emerged in 2011. The stakes – the fate of the democratic ideal and a livable Earth, the very prospects for a decent and desirable future – could hardly be higher. Tying it all together, I shall argue, are the amoral institutional imperatives of the state-capitalist profits system, absurdly described as the “free market” in reigning US political discourse.
Captive to and controlled by corporate, financial, and professional elites, the 2012 highly personalized and quadrennial US presidential “electoral extravaganza” (Chomsky’s evocative phrase) swallowed up the lion’s share of official American domestic news and commentary for the year that followed Occupy’s dismantlement. One month before the spectacle’s culmination, the Public Broadcasting System’s investigative journalism show Frontline broadcast a show purporting to “present the definitive portraits of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.” The show, titled “The Choice,”9 provided sensitive, deeply researched, and highly personal biographies of the two official contenders, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. “The Choice” was as remarkable for what it left out as it was for what it included, however. It was loaded with details about the candidates’ family histories and marriages and past careers and cam- paigns. At the same time, it was conspicuously silent about the different and yet – from the perspective of many observers – all too similar policy agendas of the two business-backed candidates and about the massive amounts of elite money that paid for both of the campaigns in what had already become far and away the most expensive US election of all time.
Americans need to look through John Carpenter’s magical shades and pick from options that go deeper than recurrent once-every-1,460-days contests between two elite-sponsored state-capitalist politicians. “We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country,” US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted more than six decades ago, “or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”10 that is the real choice for serious citizens beneath and beyond the much ballyhooed choice offered by two candidates selected for us in advance by the powers that be. It was the choice that Occupy Wall Street and its many hundreds of offshoots across the country tried to place before the American people in the late summer and fall of 2011.
Acting on that choice in a seriously democratic fashion, however, is not a simple or easy matter. It involves difficult and detailed movement-building work each and every day, not just once very four years. As the great radical American historian Howard Zinn explained in an essay on the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in early 2008,
The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. . . . Would I support one [presidential] candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. . . . But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.11
By the time I completed this book (started in the summer of 2012, months before the election that returned Barack Obama to the White House), the latest and current “election frenzy” had begun to recede like a bad hangover. It always does. As the dull crush of persistent plutocratic rule beneath and beyond quadrennial election spectacles sinks back into popular consciousness, the time is ripe again for serious and sustained popular mobilization, dedicated to a serious, at least partly Occupy-informed version of radically democratic politics. It is my hope that this book will aid that project by sharpening the subversive egalitarian vision one can garner from donning a good pair of They Live’s demystifying sunglasses. And that it will suggest at least some of what might be done to save democracy and a livable future after we see through the powerful myths and propaganda that do much to sustain the contemporary de facto dictatorship of the rich.