Book of the Day: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy

*Book: Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy. Robert McChesney.


Conducted by Mark Carlin:
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.


* 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.” (

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