Once declared by The New York Times to be, “the most important intellectual alive,” a quote it surely regrets, prolific gadfly Noam Chomsky has said that, “Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.” How true. However, the same dictator might find the sloppy, often incoherent work of that uniform press to be a problem in need of a solution, especially at a time when it finds itself assaulted on all sides by alternative media. The mainstream finds itself desperately waging rearguard actions as it stumbles beyond the shadow of respectability. As it retreats into a shell of reactionary conformity, the mainstream has become a parody of itself. Once, its propaganda was well-crafted and replete with nuance and high-quality dissimulation, such that the average American reader could be duped regardless of his or her preconceived notions.
That is no longer the case. The demise of authority in the mainstream is thanks largely to the relentless round-the-clock news cycle and a deep bias in favor of sound bytes and sensationalism. How ironic that the collapse of faith in western media is caused by its own relentless fealty to profitability. The corporate press has now become, for vast segments of the population, a transparently deceitful congeries of second-rate pseudo-journalists who traffic in base fictions at the behest of elite capital. Meanwhile, ranks of first-rate independent journalists now dot the coarse hide of the staggering beast of the mainstream, more woodpeckers than parasites, slowly penetrating the dense carapace of falsehood that coarsens the consciousness of western citizenry. Only relentless infusions of capital are keeping the beast alive. Quantitative easing for the propaganda class.
If you want a nice index of the abysmal depths to which modern political discourse has sunk, there are dozens of pristine examples on YouTube. In fact, the site is in some sense a junk-strewn wasteland of western cultural debris, each piece of trash boasting thousands of views. I recently watched an episode of the BBC’s, “The Daily Politics”, now mercifully discontinued after 15 years of spreading disinformation disguised as “in depth” coverage of political events. Last July, just before being shuttered for good,, the show hosted the communist Aaron Bastani. (Perhaps this was another effort to align Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn with the fraudulent effigies of Stalin and Mao.)
This show is a particularly good example of what happens when a freethinker is for some reason permitted time on a mainstream network and utters viewpoints that are well outside the Overton Window of acceptable opinion. The airing of such thinkers is not, as most suspect, an example of an open press, but rather a calculated effort to censor unacceptable ideas. On a psychological level, it serves the same purpose of unifying the herd as burning witches did in the medieval epoch. There is some sort of malign catharsis in communal attacks on ideological enemies. Just look at the vicious historical Hindu violence against minority Muslims in India. Communalism, they call it. In any event, this collection of pseudo-journalists, arrayed around a table in comfortable chairs, was an especially nice representation of the idiocy of our current political dialogue. Four neoliberals had to be brought on to collectively mock, browbeat, and quiz the good-natured YouTube host of “The Bastani Factor” on his bizarre communist politics.
Theater of the Absurd
The stage is set by show producers when they cast a giant image of a yellow hammer and sickle against a vast background of red (gulag blood, no doubt). This farcical backdrop covers half the set. The “guest” Bastani is first mocked for handing out a t-shirt that says, “I’m literally a communist.” Then he is asked by moderator Jo Coburn, a haughty establishment tool with a penchant for constant interruptions, whether or not Bastani is simply whitewashing “a murderous ideology.”
After Bastani finishes describing communism for the panel, Laura Hughes of the highly esteemed Financial Times declares that she felt like she’d just sat through her high school history class all over again, and that what was really needed was, “a new word” other than communism, since the latter was obviously so freighted with capitalist propaganda (she didn’t exactly say that). Political pundit and Tory Matthew Parris then jumps in to say he’s perfectly comfortable with the current word, and that Marx was perfectly clear about what he meant by it. Hughes gazes at Parris, nodding with a condescending smile, before Coburn leaps in to ask again about the supposedly nine million slaughtered at the hands of Stalin’s purges, gulags, and induced famines. Parris laughs uncomfortably and defensively remarks, “Well, I’m not a communist!” But the bloodthirsty Coburn isn’t satisfied. Is understanding communism not, in effect, trivializing its crimes? Parris then confirms for all and sundry that the practice of communism will most certainly require mass slaughter.
Coburn jumps back to Bastani, asking whether it requires violence. Rather than say it requires the seizure of property from the ruling class, and that this act might inspire violent resistance, as it did from the kulaks following the Bolshevik revolution, Bastani attempts to smooth it all over with an anecdote from the 14th century, which appeases no one and distracts everyone. Here another conservative journalist, Suzanne Evans, declares, in reference to the disturbing t-shirt, to say, “I’m literally a communist” is tantamount to saying, “I’m literally a fascist.” Hughes bounces up and down in her chair and reminds the panel that communism “didn’t work!” She then reiterates her call for “a new word.” Someone then asks whether Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would wear Bastani’s communist t-shirt, prompting Bastani to point out that Corbyn isn’t actually a communist. Evans smugly replies, “He’s 90 percent a communist” (to guffaws in the gallery).
Parris has by this point recovered from the dreadful insinuation that he was a tankie. He then announces that one of the main problems with communism, aside from the mass slaughter, is that it still has a “student Che Guevara mystique about it.” This insight is met with knowing nods and throaty growls from the panel. He then bafflingly adds that free marketers (like himself) “haven’t been robust enough in defending what we believe in.” Bastani might have noted that a century of nonstop laissez faire propaganda from the business press should surely have squelched a few noisy gangs of undergrads in Che t-shirts. Alas, the show then dribbled to a close, everyone declining the offer of the t-shirt as though it were smallpox-infested blanket from colonial times.
The comments section beneath the YouTube video was largely sympathetic to Bastani, but in places typically descended into an intra-communist debate about what communism actually is, with one ideologue insisting that, “The USSR was not remotely Marxist!” Several naysayers chimed in with the usual boilerplate about how everything we enjoy today is a product of capitalism and how capitalism is “by far” the best system ever conceived for human prosperity, etc. As usual, the capitalists take credit for everything except the death toll.
Unfortunately, this is garden variety stuff on mainstream television. One hardly utters a non-mainstream perspective before opposition pundits have their hackles up and are firing off stock phrases about the glories of the free market. There are numberless responses to this kind of commercial pablum, of which a handful come to mind.
First, no one is saying capitalism isn’t a great engine of material production. Even Marx praised it on that count. But we should never tire of pointing out that capitalism isn’t about markets; it’s the division of resources between capital and labor, the latter of which get brutally exploited by the former. As for markets, there were plenty of slave markets in the ancient world, and plenty of markets under feudalism, and there have been plenty of markets in socialist economies. Second, the numerous social advances made in the US were made in spite of capitalism, not because of it. It’s not as though the franchise, the eight-hour work day, or the social safety net were commodities distributed by profit-seeking capitalists in some magically humane laissez faire agora.
Third, the Soviet Union was a demonstrable success, achieving some remarkable industrial gains during just the Thirties alone, before western jackals watched while the Nazi Wehrmacht rolled into Russia, and was finally unraveled by pro-western factions within the Soviet state. The German Democratic Republic is another example of a profoundly different, and generally more humane, kind of social organization, that is continuously given the short shrift by ideologues hurling their “Stasi state” jibes into the bristling ether of social media. Fourth, we’d have never even begun to exit the Great Recession of 2008 without China’s command economy, with its various socialist aims and government controlled production.
Fifth, no one bothers to investigate the propaganda surrounding communism, referred to in this awful BBC show as a “murderous ideology”. The purge and gulag and famine death figures were popularly disseminated largely by Robert Conquest, a British propagandist, and are suspect at best, and at worst fraudulent. The majority of the left won’t even go there for fear of crossing the threshold into pariah status, and being thrust into that burgeoning cultural pen of actual socialists and communists. Sixth, there are thought to be some 20 million people since the end of WWII who have died at the hands of imperial capitalism, and its unquenchable thirst for new markets. Those figures are not likely to be falsified, at least partially because they are not the product of a ferociously anti-Communist propaganda system, but rather independent alternative journalists without a bourgeois mandate to romanticize neoliberalism and demonize communism. Nor are those numbers likely to stall; the implacable drive for hegemony promises much more slaughter, with many more million brown men, women, and children adding to the figures, plenty of them doubtless LGBTQ+ and trans. Seventh, India, for instance, is hardly better off than it was before the capitalist invasion by Britain. Same goes for the Congo or anyplace else capital has reached for market access. Life in the metropole is considerably different than life in the ransacked provinces.
Eighth, when you argue for the current system, you’re arguing for a capitalist oligarchy in which 1 percent of humanity controls more than half the world’s wealth, and 30 percent control 95 percent of the wealth, leaving 70 percent of the world’s population to support itself on 5 percent of the world’s resources, access to which are nevertheless being hotly contested by capital. Ninth, recent studies have shown marked rises in suicides as neoliberal austerity takes hold in the metropole itself, while hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have taken their own lives thanks to neoliberal structural reforms in a story that provoked meager interest in western capitals. Tenth, it’s been conclusively shown that we are heading into the sixth mass extinction event in history, produced by capitalist industrialization. Yet almost all of us are in denial, either as Republicans hastily summoning their liberal conspiracy talking points, or as neoliberal Democrats who still cling to the meager thread of the Obama era and the Paris Accords, as if Obama and Paris were really going to address climate change the way it needs to be addressed.
Alas, these responses might have short-circuited the hive mind of the BBC panel. Facts, hurled into a pandemonium of deceits, can have that effect. Of course, Bastani was shuttled away before any of these considerations were tabled, the benighted doxies of imperialism happy to have had another go at the far left before decamping for their next bourgeois dinner party, anxious to don their own ‘most important intellectual’ attire and regale placid peers of the intelligentsia with tales of ideology run amuck.