All posts by Jason Hirthler

The Neoliberal Rearguard

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.

Punching Back

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.

The Curious Malaise of the Middle Class

Passing through the vestibules of airports, one experiences the quotidian toil of modern neoliberal life. Even as one’s spirits rise at the thought of a fresh destination, or perhaps a familiar one, the vast task force of transit works fastidiously about you. The TSA army bark irritated orders to lethargic queues of travelers; everywhere badged employees swipe cards and pass through nondescript doors; a lone, lank youth brushes the carpeted floor with a broom, sweeping miniscule dust mites into his empty dust pan; the cashier issues her rote boilerplate: “Is that all?”, said with a faintly accusatory air, as though you were not spending enough into the economy, a consumer-citizen’s first duty; and “Have a pleasant flight”, a casual aside uttered as she is half-turned away from you, her thoughts already involved in some internal calculus. A mixture of slow- and fleet-footed travelers course through this infantry of minor taskmasters, seeking their all-important departure gates. The entire mis-en-scene happens like clockwork, a cast of somnambulents sleepwalking through lives of endless routine, the class character of the setting muted beneath the wholesale price points of the duty free.

It is strange to watch the sleepy drama of airports, in which a bourgeoisie and a working class effortlessly intermingle, both seemingly inured to the routines of capitalist life. Something soulless inhabits the pace of capitalist life. One observes it here in the deadened gaze of the wage workers, watching their lives tick away in terminal jobs; but also in the ceaseless arrivals and departures of businessmen charging off to another sales conference; and in the harried rush of families to make it on their annual holiday junket. One wonders if any of these classes, more the workers than the professional caste, might ever revolt against the system that keeps them ensnared in their drudgery.

The Haves Revolt

In his 2001 novel Millennium People, British author JG Ballard contemplates not a proletarian revolution but a middle-class one, launched in a small bourgeois London neighborhood called Chelsea-Marina. The revolt is led in part by charismatic dissident Kay Churchill, a film studies lecturer at a local college. Her goal is to unsettle the middle-class, awaken them from their dogmatic slumbers, the normalized routines of work, family, and travel. She and the narrator, David Markham, conduct various half-comic, half-subversive activities in posh City bedroom communities. They go door-to-door conducting fake surveys designed to discomfort bourgeois households, asking probing questions about personal hygiene, sexual infidelity, and beastiality that disturb settled social codes. They put exploding cassettes on shelves of video stores, creating havoc in one of the favorite hobby shops of the middle-class. Throughout, Churchill and Markham have a curious back-and-forth in which Markham questions whether the middle-class is actually happy with their mindless routines. “Maybe they’re happy being conned.” Chuchill is unconvinced, “The prisoners polish their chains? I won’t accept that.” She adds that the rebellion needs to, “Stir things up. Make them realize they’re victims.” She sees the brainwashed bourgeoisie languishing in “cultural prisons” of safe and surveilled mediocrity. She holds the travel industry with especial contempt:

Today’s tourist goes nowhere…All the upgrades in existence lead to the same airports and resort hotels, the same pina colada bullshit. The tourists smile at their tans and their shiny teeth and think they’re happy. But the suntans hide who they really are—salary slaves, with heads full of American rubbish. Travel is the last fantasy the 20th Century left us, the delusion that going somewhere helps you reinvent yourself.

As for the supposed benefits that accrue to emerging economies, “‘The Third World!’ Her voice rose to a derisive hoot. ‘Gangs of coolies who mix the cement and lay the runways. A select few get to mix the cocktails and lay the tourists.’”

But the rebels understand the larger threats that neoliberal capitalism poses to middle-class life. Their novel’s tragicomic revolution is sparked by “declining fortunes”, a situation mirrored in today’s middle-class suburbs around the capitalist West. Rather than sitting atop a building mountain of home equity, spacious housing, and a one-income lifestyle, like their parents, the contemporary middle-class is saddled with extravagant debt burdens, underwater mortgages, and an increasingly crude and abrasive culture industry that thrives on political conflict, manufactured terrorist threats, and reality TV centered on the thriftless, alcohol-fueled Tlives of the accidentally rich. Americans owe the mortgage, credit card, auto, and student loan industries in America more than a trillion dollars each, with mortgage debt leading the way, at close to nine trillion.

The Great Unbanked

And yet we have nothing quite approximating the rebellion in Chelsea-Marina. Set in a Middle Earth of creature comforts and crumbling fortunes, the middle class finds itself placated through the instruments of debt finance, the political establishment’s endless hectoring about personal responsibility, and the media’s numberless features on the lifestyles of celebrities and the rich. This last circulates through our heads, a pastiche dream of social media fame, grand galas, and cosmopolitan jet-setting (cooly aping the transnationalism of elite executives, a parody of actual power).

The instability of middle-class life is a product of neoliberal economics implemented in the early Seventies, but it seems that this has only lately come to be more generally understood, thanks to the Great Recession and a river of alternative media dialogues that contradict the mainstream narrative. Of course, the mainstream media focuses on ruling class extravagance, occasionally the crises of the floundering middle-class, and very occasionally it pauses to celebrate the perseverance of the disenfranchised in the face of deeply insulting economic fortunes. (Journalist Adam Johnson calls this, “perseverance porn,” which might include, for instance, an article congratulating a worker who walks twenty miles a day to his job, or who has to work five jobs to raise three kids, etc. A recent beer ad featured the headline, “A 12-hour workday is just a prelude to a 12-ounce beer” as though the latter were anything more than a bleary consolation for being overworked.)

Yet the mainstream deliberately ignores the underlying causal catastrophe of neoliberalism. Fortunately, alternative and some academic media does mainstream journalism’s job on its behalf. Author Peter Phillips, for instance, details a number of telling figures in his recent book Giants: The Global Power Elite. As Phillips points out, when you argue for the current system, particularly in the US, you’re arguing for a capitalist oligarchy in which 1 percent of humanity controls more than half the world’s wealth, and in which 30 percent control 95 percent of the world’s wealth, leaving 70 percent of the world’s population to support itself on 5 percent of the world’s resources. Second, Thomas Piketty’s monumental study of capitalism demonstrated that it produces ever-widening inequality, which sociology has long found to be correlated with social and political conflict. Third, 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 already taken their own lives in an ongoing epidemic that provoked meager interest in western capitals. Fourth, it’s been conclusively argued that we are heading into the sixth mass extinction event in history, one produced by capitalist industrialization.

One would think this would all be enough to launch a society on a different path of social organization. Yet we are not shifting gears, save for a few outnumbered socialists in Washington, whose Cassandra warnings are washed away beneath a tide of media coverage of celebrity centrists declaring their candidacies for office. And then there is the teeming horde of  hidebound conservatives, rehearsing underlined passages from their university textbooks and declaring, generally with affected weariness over watery tumblers of Kentucky mash, that capitalism is not a zero sum game. They argue that there is ever more growth available to us, and it will soon trickle down to even the laziest among us. This argument ignores the finitude of planetary resources, the dangers of financialization as a path to non-material growth, and the obvious refutation that more growth is pointless when it continues to be unequally divided, thanks to institutional fetters designed to ensure the upward flow of accumulation. All this as corporate largesse to the fossil fuel industry now exceeds the Pentagon budget.

The Decline of Dreams

Despite these realities, the collective hope for escape to an alternative tomorrow is quietly reeled back, from heady dreams of communal democracy to more mundane daydreams of mini-breaks and tourism junkets to overdeveloped tropical venues. Capitalism’s bourgeoisie humbly accept this diminution of possibility in their lives, the very notion of class erased from their memories, leaving them to credit or blame themselves for their successes and failures—the ultimate form of alienation.

They accept too the acquisition of a few creature comforts, enough to cobble together a shambling quasi middle-class lifestyle, debt-fueled and marked by stress, obesity, and quotidian drudgery. Not to mention the high-decibal media cant reminding them of the frontier dangers of radical Islam, authoritarian socialist dictators, and more proximate perils of urban violence and auto-wrecks. They accept their lot. The intellectual dissidents, finding one avenue of resistance after another foreclosed, ideologically worn down, find themselves acting out the society of spectacle described by French philosopher Guy Debord. Acts of resistance become merely performative, rebellions normalized and incorporated within the horizons of neoliberal life, little more than a venting system for consumer frustration that, maddeningly, is said to represent the robust health of the democratic state. Once-ruddy rebels, enflamed by a raft of injustices, resolve into a tableaux of bored travelers, waiting for a call to board, hoping they will soon be ferried to the worlds of their imagination.

The liberal class thus divides into two breakaway clans, those who limit themselves to lip-service monologues with which they publicize their sense of injustice over comfortable meals, wine glasses brandished as weapons to punctuate their outrage. Then there are the true thespians, who take to the streets, wielding placards filled with exclamations and chanting songs of resistance as their throngs progress clumsily down the avenue, thoughtfully cleared of traffic in advance by local authorities. On the one hand, gestural politics; on the other, theater.

A Process of Incorporation

In Ballard’s Chelsea-Marina, the rebellion is finally defused as the municipality accedes to several of their material demands, revealing the superficial commitments of the angry but easily pacified professionals. Their class pretensions confirmed, discomforts assuaged, they melt back into the bland triptych of sensible consumer behaviors: earn, buy, consume. Kay Churchill gains some noteriety, which she parlays into regular television appearances and a commission to produce a documentary and companion book on the aims of the revolution.

Here, we see the subtle mechanics of capitalist incorporation almost invisibly at work, defusing the prospects of revolution. First, the ideological is divided from the material; the ideological aims of the rebellion are ignored while some of the material demands are addressed, creating the illusion of concession while stabilizing the status quo. Next, the insurgents and suburban mutineers are individually bought off, separated like a street gang divides a flock of pedestrians, slicing them off from one another for individual exploitation. Assigned roles within the establishment, they are permitted a patina of defiance while in actuality performing a counterrevolutionary role.

Lastly, they are encouraged to memorialize their insurrection. Now that it is past, it can be safely reevaluated, like the retrospective of a deceased artist’s body of work. The uprising is recontexualized and assimilated, redefined in the sunny optimism of neoliberal kultura as a successful, even necessary, outburst of civil disobedience. As the narrative travels through time, the real character of the uprising is mystified until it can be finally commoditized as a salable cultural artifact for the edification of the masses, sold as a tee-shirt or a fashion statement. Firmly established in the media of myth, it is one more item on the menu on your seatback screen, an entertainment to alleviate the boredom on the flight of capitalism to a future that appears to resemble a disappointing past, only more so. Spike Lee was wrong: the revolution will be televised, and we’ll all pay a fee to watch it, another profitable revenue stream for the transnational merchants sitting in business class.

(Is this not the revisionist history of Martin Luther King, Jr., his outsized vision truncated to a voting rights act, his broader narrative of triplicate evils swept aside, finally repackaged as a holiday and a video on-demand?)

Back in the realm of nonfiction, the plane taxies onto the early morning airstrip, and one can peer out the double-paned porthole window into the dawn light. The tarmac offers a straightaway of golden footlights on either side, strings of glancing jewels beckoning the rumbling jet forward. The straightaway runs into the near distance, eventually terminating into a pinpoint enveloped in a sheath of gray fog eclipsing the sky. The jet engines hum to a high whine and the vessel surges forward. You can feel the human and steel freight being pulled ahead, the first class passengers in the vanguard, shifting irritably in their leather lounges, as though anxious to shed the rear of the plane and all the unwanted cargo holding them back.

By Any Means Necessary

Back in the chaotic collapsing scenery of the Soviet Union in the late Eighties, there occurred an event that signaled the eventual fate of the USSR, even if no one exactly knew it at the moment. A fairly unknown teacher named Nina Andreyeva published an essay in a political magazine called Sovetskaya Rossiya, or Soviet Russia. The brave Andreyeva leveled sharp criticism at Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), a reformist agenda clandestinely aimed at dismantling the Communist Party and moving the country toward perhaps what would have been a vague form of European market-based social democracy. Andreyeva had understood where Gorbachev was headed and, as a committed communist, feared the dissolution of the workers’ struggle to build a truly communist society.

What happened next is instructive: Gorbachev and his Politburo ally Alexander Yakovlev seized the opportunity to attack Andreyeva’s essay and paint those who supported it as anti-reformist and anti-modern. But along with that depiction, the media raised the criticism that Andreyeva’s essay was anti-Semitic. It was not, according to authors Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny in their excellent Socialism Betrayed, but it hardly mattered. Gorbachev and Yakovlev printed a fierce rebuttal in the journal Pravda. The media quickly took up Gorbachev’s line and the narrative was set. Gorbachev and his fellow reformists used the artificial scandal and the hysteria it generated to isolate and disempower his Politburo rival and critic, Yegor Ligachev.

From that point, Gorbachev raced forward with his reform program and rather than become a model European welfare state, the USSR soon collapsed, disintegrating into a ‘parade of sovereignties’ that saw many of the former Soviet republics declare their independence. Millions died in the wake of the collapse, with their social supports gone, their economy in tatters, and western vulture capitalists flooding into the country. Another seminal victory for neoliberal democracy. But does that media scandal ring a bell? Because precisely the same tactic of the anti-Semitic smear is being used against another critic of power, Minnesota Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar.

Two Minutes Hate

In a thinly-veiled censure of Omar, the House Democrats issued a resolution condemning “all hate”. This artificial necessity of this “resolution” is pathetic. As Adam Johnson parodied it, “We oppose an abstract noun without any political or moral context. We are the party of good things and anti-bad things. Please vote for us, the good things party.” The resolution, as you may already know, addresses various comments made by Omar, the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress along with Rashida Tlaib. Aside from comments in other public appearances, she issued a couple of tweets saying that Congressional support for Israel was, “all about the Benjamins” and later that it produced, “allegiance to a foreign country.”

Omar noted that fealty to AIPAC and Israel were stifling debate on Gaza. She noted that the Israeli lobby was demanding a loyalty to Israeli Zionists interests that compromised politicians’ loyalty to American interests. Following initial criticism, she said, “I should not be expected to have allegiance or pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country…Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic…” and later added, “I don’t how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza War, and I’m clearly speaking about the way the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war.”

Eleven Jewish groups led by AIPAC demanded a response from Nancy Pelosi, including having Omar removed from the Foreign Relations Committee and declaring an organization she spoke at labeled a terrorist unit. She has been subjected to Islamophobia from Republicans. After some push-back from the left, the House watered down the document to roundly condemn hatred in general, including anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, and bigotry against minorities. But the weight of the document emphasized anti-Semitism, and everyone knows who the object of censure is. Her Democratic colleagues were largely silent. The bill passed 407-23. Every House Democrat voted for it, including Omar. Only Republicans voted against it.

The resolution argues that Omar’s comments conjure two anti-Semitic stereotypes. The first is the ‘dual allegiance’ ‘trope’, bringing up the Dreyfuss Affair and the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. The second was that her comments activated stereotypes about Jews controlling society with money. Of course, to say that AIPAC lobbying may make some senators and representatives more willing to do Israel’s bidding than America’s is not anti-Semitic. That is the very point of lobbying: placing a special interest’s objectives above those of the country at large. Nor is it anti-Semitic to argue that AIPAC uses money to push its goals in Congress. Every lobbyist does, regardless of color or creed. And yet these are easily conflated with the aforementioned anti-Semitic motifs, which is precisely the goal of the resolution.

But Paul Rosenberg at Salon, echoing Paul Waldman at the Washington Post, of all places, correctly noted that “Omar did not accuse Jews of holding dual loyalties. Rather, she objected to dual loyalties being demanded of her–and those who attacked her only proved her point.” And Jonathan Cook noted in his excellent review of the faux scandal, “These supporters of Israel are asking for the impossible: demanding silence from everyone else as they defend a state whose policies require not just racism but daily structural violence towards Palestinians. Whatever the anti-Semitism narrative hopes to achieve, there isn’t an exemption for anti-Palestinian racism just because it is being promoted by a section of the Jewish community.”

Not that it mattered to the hysterical cast of armchair magistrates, but the UN declared that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza during the recent border protests. The mainstream media continues its campaign to bury Omar, relentlessly pursuing and then evoking “pain and confusion” caused by the representative’s hard-hitting truths.

Fake Progress

The parallels with the Nina Andreyeva event are compelling. It isn’t antisemitism that is the real story, but the shuttering of dissent. Ruling class capitalists and their enthusiastic sympathizers will use any tactic they can to attack and disable perceived threats to their profiteering policy agenda. And make no mistake, profits are at the root of America’s support of Israel, as well as the entire project of imperialism. It makes no difference, as Cook argues, that a false charge of antisemitism is equal to actual antisemitism, what matters to elite capital and its political enablers is destroying threats and consolidating power. Nina Andreyeva was a threat to Gorbachev’s destructive reformism. Ilhan Omar is a threat to American imperialism. Both women were viciously attacked for their comments, their attackers using any means necessary to suppress the validity of their critiques. Andreyeva’s colleagues would soon, “give out her phone number with nasty glee…” She was eventually hounded into isolation. What will become of Omar remains to be seen, but the entire affair proved her point, that the Zionist lobby wields immense influence in Washington. Congressional representatives aside from the Minnesota representative and a handful of others are utterly venal sophists who themselves traffic in slander, exhibit base fealty to monied interests, and ignore American interests in favor of the ruling class constituency of white-led corporate entities that promote capitalist exploitation at home and abroad.

Precisely the same charges have been relentlessly leveled at British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his party allies. The purpose is to ensure Corbyn never sees the inside of Ten Downing Street. Watch as this narrative of progressive anti-Semitism is transferred across the Atlantic to defile the left-wing of the Democratic party going into the 2020 elections. This is yet another strain of identity politics being wielded against progressives. And without question, the socialism of the left is a far bigger threat to capitalist rule than the fascism of the right. Socialism overthrows capitalism. Fascism supercharges it. It’s important to remember that Hitler saw the conquest of the USSR as his greatest opportunity, to crush socialism and obtain a vassal colony in one fell swoop, while purging the ‘Aryan’ race at the same time. It is a pathetic irony of history that modern neoliberals falsely charge progressives with echoes of Hitler’s quest to destroy Jews as a tool to enable his plan to destroy socialism. In another regrettable paradox of recent history, it might be worth remembering that the magazine Gorbachev used to crush his rivals, Pravda, is Russian for “truth.”

By Any Means Necessary

Back in the chaotic collapsing scenery of the Soviet Union in the late Eighties, there occurred an event that signaled the eventual fate of the USSR, even if no one exactly knew it at the moment. A fairly unknown teacher named Nina Andreyeva published an essay in a political magazine called Sovetskaya Rossiya, or Soviet Russia. The brave Andreyeva leveled sharp criticism at Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), a reformist agenda clandestinely aimed at dismantling the Communist Party and moving the country toward perhaps what would have been a vague form of European market-based social democracy. Andreyeva had understood where Gorbachev was headed and, as a committed communist, feared the dissolution of the workers’ struggle to build a truly communist society.

What happened next is instructive: Gorbachev and his Politburo ally Alexander Yakovlev seized the opportunity to attack Andreyeva’s essay and paint those who supported it as anti-reformist and anti-modern. But along with that depiction, the media raised the criticism that Andreyeva’s essay was anti-Semitic. It was not, according to authors Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny in their excellent Socialism Betrayed, but it hardly mattered. Gorbachev and Yakovlev printed a fierce rebuttal in the journal Pravda. The media quickly took up Gorbachev’s line and the narrative was set. Gorbachev and his fellow reformists used the artificial scandal and the hysteria it generated to isolate and disempower his Politburo rival and critic, Yegor Ligachev.

From that point, Gorbachev raced forward with his reform program and rather than become a model European welfare state, the USSR soon collapsed, disintegrating into a ‘parade of sovereignties’ that saw many of the former Soviet republics declare their independence. Millions died in the wake of the collapse, with their social supports gone, their economy in tatters, and western vulture capitalists flooding into the country. Another seminal victory for neoliberal democracy. But does that media scandal ring a bell? Because precisely the same tactic of the anti-Semitic smear is being used against another critic of power, Minnesota Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar.

Two Minutes Hate

In a thinly-veiled censure of Omar, the House Democrats issued a resolution condemning “all hate”. This artificial necessity of this “resolution” is pathetic. As Adam Johnson parodied it, “We oppose an abstract noun without any political or moral context. We are the party of good things and anti-bad things. Please vote for us, the good things party.” The resolution, as you may already know, addresses various comments made by Omar, the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress along with Rashida Tlaib. Aside from comments in other public appearances, she issued a couple of tweets saying that Congressional support for Israel was, “all about the Benjamins” and later that it produced, “allegiance to a foreign country.”

Omar noted that fealty to AIPAC and Israel were stifling debate on Gaza. She noted that the Israeli lobby was demanding a loyalty to Israeli Zionists interests that compromised politicians’ loyalty to American interests. Following initial criticism, she said, “I should not be expected to have allegiance or pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country…Being opposed to Netanyahu and the occupation is not the same as being anti-Semitic…” and later added, “I don’t how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans. My comments precisely are addressing what was happening during the Gaza War, and I’m clearly speaking about the way the Israeli regime was conducting itself in that war.”

Eleven Jewish groups led by AIPAC demanded a response from Nancy Pelosi, including having Omar removed from the Foreign Relations Committee and declaring an organization she spoke at labeled a terrorist unit. She has been subjected to Islamophobia from Republicans. After some push-back from the left, the House watered down the document to roundly condemn hatred in general, including anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, and bigotry against minorities. But the weight of the document emphasized anti-Semitism, and everyone knows who the object of censure is. Her Democratic colleagues were largely silent. The bill passed 407-23. Every House Democrat voted for it, including Omar. Only Republicans voted against it.

The resolution argues that Omar’s comments conjure two anti-Semitic stereotypes. The first is the ‘dual allegiance’ ‘trope’, bringing up the Dreyfuss Affair and the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. The second was that her comments activated stereotypes about Jews controlling society with money. Of course, to say that AIPAC lobbying may make some senators and representatives more willing to do Israel’s bidding than America’s is not anti-Semitic. That is the very point of lobbying: placing a special interest’s objectives above those of the country at large. Nor is it anti-Semitic to argue that AIPAC uses money to push its goals in Congress. Every lobbyist does, regardless of color or creed. And yet these are easily conflated with the aforementioned anti-Semitic motifs, which is precisely the goal of the resolution.

But Paul Rosenberg at Salon, echoing Paul Waldman at the Washington Post, of all places, correctly noted that “Omar did not accuse Jews of holding dual loyalties. Rather, she objected to dual loyalties being demanded of her–and those who attacked her only proved her point.” And Jonathan Cook noted in his excellent review of the faux scandal, “These supporters of Israel are asking for the impossible: demanding silence from everyone else as they defend a state whose policies require not just racism but daily structural violence towards Palestinians. Whatever the anti-Semitism narrative hopes to achieve, there isn’t an exemption for anti-Palestinian racism just because it is being promoted by a section of the Jewish community.”

Not that it mattered to the hysterical cast of armchair magistrates, but the UN declared that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza during the recent border protests. The mainstream media continues its campaign to bury Omar, relentlessly pursuing and then evoking “pain and confusion” caused by the representative’s hard-hitting truths.

Fake Progress

The parallels with the Nina Andreyeva event are compelling. It isn’t antisemitism that is the real story, but the shuttering of dissent. Ruling class capitalists and their enthusiastic sympathizers will use any tactic they can to attack and disable perceived threats to their profiteering policy agenda. And make no mistake, profits are at the root of America’s support of Israel, as well as the entire project of imperialism. It makes no difference, as Cook argues, that a false charge of antisemitism is equal to actual antisemitism, what matters to elite capital and its political enablers is destroying threats and consolidating power. Nina Andreyeva was a threat to Gorbachev’s destructive reformism. Ilhan Omar is a threat to American imperialism. Both women were viciously attacked for their comments, their attackers using any means necessary to suppress the validity of their critiques. Andreyeva’s colleagues would soon, “give out her phone number with nasty glee…” She was eventually hounded into isolation. What will become of Omar remains to be seen, but the entire affair proved her point, that the Zionist lobby wields immense influence in Washington. Congressional representatives aside from the Minnesota representative and a handful of others are utterly venal sophists who themselves traffic in slander, exhibit base fealty to monied interests, and ignore American interests in favor of the ruling class constituency of white-led corporate entities that promote capitalist exploitation at home and abroad.

Precisely the same charges have been relentlessly leveled at British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his party allies. The purpose is to ensure Corbyn never sees the inside of Ten Downing Street. Watch as this narrative of progressive anti-Semitism is transferred across the Atlantic to defile the left-wing of the Democratic party going into the 2020 elections. This is yet another strain of identity politics being wielded against progressives. And without question, the socialism of the left is a far bigger threat to capitalist rule than the fascism of the right. Socialism overthrows capitalism. Fascism supercharges it. It’s important to remember that Hitler saw the conquest of the USSR as his greatest opportunity, to crush socialism and obtain a vassal colony in one fell swoop, while purging the ‘Aryan’ race at the same time. It is a pathetic irony of history that modern neoliberals falsely charge progressives with echoes of Hitler’s quest to destroy Jews as a tool to enable his plan to destroy socialism. In another regrettable paradox of recent history, it might be worth remembering that the magazine Gorbachev used to crush his rivals, Pravda, is Russian for “truth.”

The Need for a Compelling Anti-Capitalist Narrative

There’s a scene in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia where he describes how the communists propagandized the fascists during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Orwell was with a scruffy, makeshift band of fighters high in the Spanish Alps. Both the communists and fascists were dug into their trenches and a general stalemate had ensued. During the frigid mountain days, certain soldiers were tasked with communicating to the enemy. They would first position themselves in a safe place. Then using a megaphone would recite a prefabricated monologue about how the fascist soldiers were little more than pawns in the service of elite capital interests. They were the disposable implements of war, easily discarded once used. Orwell wrote that nearly everyone on the communist side assumed the efficacy of these communiques. The conscripted fascist, often a teenager and drafted against his will for a fight he had little knowledge of or interest in, would be sunk within a muddy trench, hungry, thirsty, tormented by the alpine freeze of high altitudes. How could the socialist message not appeal to him? Of particular value, Orwell noted, were the segments of the script that announced to the disgruntled fascists that the communist speaker was, at that very moment, consuming a delicious piece of warm, buttered toast. An absurd thing to say, and perhaps the brooding fascist understood how unlikely it was to be true, but the mere image of it, a slightly burnt half of toast slathered in golden melting butter, was enough to destabilize even the most stout-hearted soldier.

The Language of Transformation

The point being, to win “the fight for the minds of men,” as America’s great war propagandist George Creel put it, one must conjure charismatic images, weave imagistic tales, and produce a historical narrative that resonates with and unifies a vast disenfranchised public. Creel served under the Wilson administration and helped turn a pacifist citizenry into a bristling public angry at the fearsome “Hun” it had never actually encountered (not unlike the roving, rape-obsessed immigrants that hysterical Republicans have never encountered, even as they obsessively grease their rifles).

Despite the obvious need for compelling stories, how often do we read interviews or articles with committed leftists or socialists, even the venerable Noam Chomsky, for instance, reminding us in the driest of terms that voting is a mere five-second act that should be given no more attention than a quick, lesser-evil calculation before stepping into the voting booth. Rather, as various authors remind us, like humorless fathers admonishing a frivolous child, that only the hard, laborious, and thankless work of community organizing, conducted tirelessly between elections, will lead to real and lasting change. True as it may be, it is, as framed and presented, a cheerless and dispiriting prospect, a maxim that literally no one wants to hear or is wont to repeat.

What this deadpan delivery misses is how voting is the one event that truly captures the imagination of the public. It is the collective ritual that confirms for many Americans that we are privileged members of a rich and enlightened western democracy. That, despite our problems, we are yet at the forefront of history, participating in the march of human progress with a faith and purpose rivaled on by the Athenian demos and the arbiters of the Magna Carta. It forgets that for many it is a hallowed booth into which we step, where one’s choice is cloaked behind a dark curtain like some kind of secular confessional, and after making their confession, the cleansed citizenry wear bright stickers proclaiming to all and sundry that they did their civic duty.

Voting, perhaps, is the one communal political act which our atomized capitalist society permits us. It rests alongside holiday consumption sprees and sporting rituals as self-defining markers in the firmament of our national consciousness. It may be myth but it is an animating myth of our society. As such, it shouldn’t be discarded with such facile contempt. Rather, it ought to be mined for pointers on how to model a socialist myth that can be evangelized to a public in desperate need of new answers.

Story and Symbol

In Geoffrey Miller’s evolutionary psychology tour de force, The Mating Mind, in which he explores the idea that art and language evolved under sexual selection pressures (rather than by pressures of natural selection), he writes the following:

Imagine some young hominids huddling around a Pleistocene campfire, enjoying their newly evolved language ability. Two males get into an argument about the nature of the world, and start holding forth, displaying their ideologies.

The hominid named Carl proposes: “We are mortal, fallible primates who survive on this fickle savanna only because we cluster in these jealousy-ridden groups. Everywhere we have ever traveled is just a tiny, random corner of a vast continent on an unimaginably huge sphere spinning in a vacuum. There sphere has traveled billions and billions of times around a flaming ball of gas, which will eventually blow up to incinerate our empty, fossilized skulls. I have discovered several compelling lines of evidence in support of these hypotheses…”

The hominid named Candide interrupts: “No, I believe we are immortal spirits gifted with these beautiful bodies because the great god Wug chose us as his favorite creatures. Wug blessed us with this fertile paradise that provides just enough challenges to keep things interesting. Behind the moon, mystic nightingales sing our praises, some of us more than others. Above the azure dome of the sky the smiling sun warms our hearts. After we grow old and enjoy the babbling of our grandchildren, Wug will lift us from these bodies to join our friends to eat roasted gazelle and dance eternally. I think these things because Wug picked me to receive this special wisdom in a dream last night.”

Which ideology do you suppose would prove more sexually attractive? Will Carl’s truth-seeking genes–which may discover some rather ugly truths–out-compete Candide’s wonderful-story genes? The evidence of human history suggests that our ancestors were more like Candide than Carl. Most modern humans are naturally Candides. It usually takes years of watching BBC or PBS science documentaries to become as objective as Carl.

If this is so, is the left guilty of transforming itself into a brooding Carl, arms overflowing with manifestos and tomes, arguing apocalypse to a weary electorate that just wants some good news? Or, at the very least, a piece of escapism, an entertaining tale that removes them from their chronic worries for a couple of hours? Recently, teacher Bruce Lerro illustrated some of the themes he emphasizes in a class he teaches, “Brainwashing Propaganda and Rhetoric: Dark Psychology in the 20th Century”. The gist of his two-part series is that socialism has yet to grasp the theatrical side of human nature that is a requisite of movement building. He points to religion, nationalism, and sports as three fields which have successfully leveraged the tribal, ethnocentric, and ritualistic tendencies within human nature to promote their particular interests.

We know Hollywood and the defense industry often collaborate on films that reify the tropes of patriotic Americanism for each passing generation. We know from marketing that advertising that creates dramatic tension and that draws from the story arcs of conventional dramatic theory improve attention and likability. Metaphors are triggering devices for the senses, hence the durable appeal of the ‘shining city on a hill’ and the visual tropes of the American Dream.

The figure of the charismatic leader has lately done a number on the American imagination. If we are so addicted to facts, as the interminable and farcical Russiagate campaign has so many of us believing, then why is Barack Obama still revered as a peace candidate? A man who as Commander in Chief dropped 26,000 bombs in a single calendar year. Who bombed the Middle East for eight years with the implacable consistency of a religious rite. Who was at war in some fashion or another his entire presidency. Yet Obama was just last month handed the RFK Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award. The organization tweeted an image of the former president in a popular pose: impeccably dressed in an expensive suit of muted azure thread, his face is a portrait of composure and gentle optimism, as his eyes gaze placidly at some unnamable dream far and high and away from where he–and we–are. The gap between the man and the myth is abyssal. Yet one can recall the masterfully rendered illustrations of the young Obama gazing determinedly into the near distance, above bolded letterings of “HOPE” and “CHANGE”, and the flowing waves of the campaign logo.

The Need for a New Myth

All this to say that without a more stirring socialist vision, imbued with the symbols and ritual that instantiate human myth, we will continue to find our attempts to inspire revolution co-opted by monopoly capital, which tend to better stories than the left does. As Henry Giroux points out, “…the lack of mass resistance to [neoliberal] oppression signals more than apathy or indifference, it also suggests that we don’t have an informed and energizing vision of the world for which we want to struggle.” Are we fighting for socialism or against neoliberalism? Are we battling neoliberalism or capitalism itself? Are we after a New Deal or a new society? Is the enemy neoconservatism or the white supremacist? Are we fighting racism, sexism, imperialism, neoliberalism, or all of the above?

This messaging mayhem is not an issue for the establishment. Rather than issuing harsh systemic critiques, the establishment paints pictures. For liberal audiences, Democrats fulminate about Donald Trump as the living manifestation of evil and traffic in the language of tyranny and resistance. For white supremacists, Republicans rouse racist enmities with images of impoverished refugees moving steadily toward our borders, which take on a monstrous character in the minds of MAGA minions. For uncompromising patriots, the armed forces air commercials of heroic young men jumping from helicopters and landing crafts and running across smoke-filled landscapes “toward the sound of chaos.” For bootstrap conservatives, there are Reagan’s welfare queens arriving at the unemployment office in waxed Cadillacs. For humanitarian interventionists, there is Colin Powell’s imagery of a team of mad scientists zigzagging Mesopotamia in mobile weapons labs, or Tony Blair brandishing a dossier warning that a nuclear-tipped WMD could hit central London in just 45 minutes.

In a mediascape littered with symbols, calls for the head of corporate capitalism on a gilded platter are thus swept aside by an interdependent duopoly that thrives on facilitating corporate exploitation with one hand and teasing the inexhaustible well of mass credulity with the other. Belief is the dodgy virtue that venal duopolists deploy the most. Each election cycle is an exercise in peddling hope and fear in alternating cycles, like a trafficker controlling his prisoners by a devious alternation of drug and deprivation. The left has done well illustrating the monstrosities of corporate capital, and the need to colorfully adumbrate the crimes of the ruling class will always be crucial. But so too is the need to craft more compelling stories of a world without war and a land where health and education and work are rites of passage rather than a lifelong ordeal. Can the traditional bearers of bad tidings shape an electrifying vision of a socialist society? A companion narrative that finally replaces the extant portrait of collectivism as a bloodbath of mayhem and menace? The left’s chances for mass appeal likely depend on it. Even the Bolsheviks, who were scathing critics of socialist opportunism, let alone capitalists, headlined their 1917 revolution with the triple promise of, “Peace! Land! Bread!” The workers and the peasants knew exactly what they were fighting for.

The Contradictions of Being Pro-Capitalist and Anti-War

In his lesser known novel, A Small Town in Germany, John Le Carré skewers the diplomatic class in the old West German capital of Bonn. An investigator sent to the drizzly town on the banks of the Rhine discovers a fog of misdirection as he tries to track down a fled spy. At one point, comfortably resigned to his frustration, a glib diplomat tells the investigator, himself at wit’s end, unable to capitalize on an array of clues, “There’s always something; there’s never enough.” This is largely the story of the socialist “opportunists” that the Russian Bolsheviks themselves skewered in the revolutionary and blood-scented atmosphere of World War One Europe. As Vladimir Lenin argues in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, the socialist opportunists argue for something: a few tepid reforms that may provide a transitory respite in the plight of the poor. But they never go far enough: challenging a system of predatory appropriation for which minor reforms are nothing but an extended sentence. They offered a map to nowhere on a path whose starting and end points are the same.

It is likewise the story of today’s bourgeois liberal class, a hollow parody of progressivism allied with the ruling class establishment. Not only are today’s Democrats purveyors of media misdirection with Russiagate, but their policies are likewise the stuff of fake news and forgotten promises. The liberal class, including its current champion, Bernie Sanders, has yet to face the incompatibility of corporate capitalism, particularly in its monopoly stage, and military imperialism. They are flip sides of the same fascist coin. The early Soviets knew this all too well.

In his memorable screed on onetime socialist Karl Kautsky’s slide into opportunism, Lenin lays out the contradiction between being anti-imperialism and pro-capitalism. After all, if imperialism, as Lenin argues, is the highest stage of capitalism itself, how could one deplore the former and approve the latter? You can’t, not without falling into a set of contradictions that render one’s entire position farcical. Lenin shows, with meticulous documentation, how capital tends to concentrate, creating monopolies and generating demand for new markets and new revenue streams.

An Iron Law of Capitalism

Through a meticulous review of European and North American data, Lenin writes that the “transformation of competition into monopoly is one of the most important–if not most important –phenomena of modern capitalist economy.” He notes how entire supply chains, or verticals, tend to combine for more fluid and efficient production. He notes, “…for example, the smelting of iron ore into pig-iron, the conversion of pig-iron into steel, and then, perhaps, the manufacture of steel…” and quotes one of the leading economists in the Weimar Republic, Rudolf Hilferding, writing, “Combination levels out the fluctuations of trade and therefore assures to the combine enterprises a more stable rate of profit.” It isn’t hard to recognize the empirical proofs of this claim, living as we do in an era of mergers and acquisitions, in which a mind-numbing $2.5 trillion in M&A were launched in just the first half of 2018.

Just consider the mediascape, in which a handful of elephantine conglomerates control some 90 percent of American media. They continue to gobble up smaller local media venues, guaranteeing the phenomenon cleverly spelled out in an 2011 infographic, which notes that 223 executives controlled the “information diet” of some 227 million Americans. While the mergers may indeed happen for reasons of capital, an epiphenomenon is the consolidation of opinion in a few ideologically sanguine hands. Example after example, cover the 1860s through the early 1900s, bring Lenin to the conclusion that “…the rise of monopolies, as the result of the concentration of production, is a general fundamental law of the present stage of the development of capitalism.” It is all done, of course, to stimulate super-profits. Not surprisingly, “the social means of production remain the private property of a few.”

When monopolies don’t get what they want, they take aggressive action against intransigent market entities. Lenin notes several tactics, including shutting down supplies of raw materials, foreclosing avenues of labor supply, quitting deliveries, blocking trade outlets, forming exclusive trade agreements, price cutting, and other vicious economic attacks.  Likewise, the control of capital itself, in the forms of credits and interest rates, is another signal feature of monopolist aggression. (Think of the Volcker Shock.) The monopolists are “…throttling those who do not submit to them…” It is interesting that these tactics are particularly evident in American foreign policy. Washington itself acts like a cartel enforcer for elite capital. These tactics, often in the form of sanctions, have been variously applied to China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other nations that refuse to adopt the yoke of American economic imperialism.

But where does all this economic infighting lead? First to monopoly, then to imperialism. Not only must access to cheap raw materials be fitted into the verticalized supply chain, owned and operated by the monopolist subsidiaries, but new markets must forever be annexed in order to stem a falling rate of profit. Lenin’s argument suggests that World War One was a bloody dividing of the world into separate camps, for the redistribution of colonial possessions, and so on. Another consistent feature of capitalist imperialism we’ve seen in recent years in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, all of which had underlying economic conflicts that drove military conflict.

The Buried Narrative

Lenin adds that monopolists leverage propaganda through media in the form of “false rumours” and “anonymous warnings” in the papers. Sound familiar? The media propaganda foisted on the public is a critical chapter of this story. The story that Lenin lays out, on the growth of competitive capitalism into monopoly and monopoly into imperialism, is a seminal link in the chain that yokes capitalism to war. And yet it has been largely scrubbed from the western record. And the absence of that knowledge is what permits imperialists like the Democratic Party to masquerade as paladins of peace and prosperity through capitalism, all cloaked beneath a feel-your-pain rhetoric aimed squarely at the working class.

Lenin opens a pivotal chapter in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, “Critique of Imperialism” with a comment that defines the corporate media and the professional class from which it comes, “’General’ enthusiasm over the prospects of imperialism, furious defence of it and painting it in the brightest colours—such are the signs of the times.” As he says, “’Social-Democratic’ Party of Germany are justly called “social-imperialists”, that is, socialists in words and imperialists in deeds.” Bourgeois scholars and publicists usually come out in defence of imperialism in a somewhat veiled form…do their very best to distract attention from essentials by means of absolutely ridiculous schemes for “reform”, such as police supervision of the trusts or banks, etc.”

He notes that most bourgeois arguments from nations seeking to shrug off the colonial shackles fail to recognize that imperialism is “inseparably bound up with capitalism,” and that requests to remove imperialism without removing capitalism are stillborn petitions, “strangled in the crib”, as Churchill might say, by their internal contradictions. Lenin points to the “anti-imperialists” in America that opposed the American trampling of the Philippines fell into the same trap of foreclosed imagination. While they railed against the “jingo treachery” of American false promises, Lenin said their criticisms would amount to little if they failed to recognize “the inseverable bond between imperialism and the trusts, and, therefore between imperialism and the foundations of capitalism…” His perspective on the Philippines protest almost, step for step, mirrors the reality of today’s “#resistance”, a farcical amalgam of costume parades and tweet storms that seeks to unseat anyone that uses politically incorrect language or wants displays their sexist or racist chevrons in public.

Discrediting sexism and racism is obviously good, if it is legitimately done. But Lenin lamented the “socialists in words and imperialists in deeds” that hounded the socialist landscape of his day. Today’s Democratic Party is progressive in words and neoliberal in deeds. The corporate liberal class has finally reached the stage where it can run a minority to do its dirty deeds. The population numbers foreseen in the Sixties have finally arrived. Barack Obama preached inclusivity from the political pulpit, but promoted exclusivity from the policy bench. It is no surprise: he is a member of a very exclusive club—an adoptee of the one percent.

Lenin attacks Kautsky and other bourgeois pundits, who argue for leveraging the engines of capitalism to increase “’the consuming capacity’” of the populace. Lenin points out that “it is in their interest to pretend to be so naïve and to talk “seriously” about peace under imperialism.” Another familiar tactic. Anyone familiar with the modern Democrats would recognize it. Like Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize from a demented clan of flour-haired Scandinavians. In one of the books he penned before he was elected, Obama confirmed that he was “a free market guy”. No one in the mainstream liberal press was willing to recognize or capable of recognizing that in confirming his capitalist bona fides, he was simultaneously signaling his allegiance to empire.

Lenin’s contemporaries like Kautsky believed that the imperial monopolies of capitalism could be disbanded and returned to a state of free competition in which the oracular market would appease the warring instincts of states, and a market-led peace would ensue. Kautsky called it “ultra-imperialism”. Lenin called it a “reformist swindle”. He notes that monopolies arose out of competition, and that to uncouple the monopolies would only return the relevant entities to a state of fierce competition, in which inequities would arise, leading to new monopolies. It was akin to dialing back determinism and expecting a new outcome. Lenin notes how any pacific alliances between competing imperialists would be at best temporary as the balance of power would inevitably shift in one direction or the other, instigating new confrontations, conflagrations, and war.

Lenin also noted the great value of imperial conquest to capital. Ever in search of new avenues of investment, ever threatened by the scourge of overproduction, new colonies could be forced open to accept “commodity dumping” from developed nations that would undercut local industry. Usurious loans to these colonial dependents would provide the funds with which to buy the first-world commodities. He even points to a German loan to Romania that facilitated the purchase of German railway materials. How could anyone fail to recognize in this dynamic the European Union’s behavior toward its fragile periphery of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, particularly the latter? Were not German loans made to Greece to purchase German goods, inflating the latter’s monopoly profits while inflating the former’s debt peonage? Lenin calls this “skinning the ox twice”. After all, the bank makes compound interest off the loan; then the loan is used to buy products from the bank’s clients. Then, once the debtor nation flounders under debt deflation, having less and less to fund its economy since so much of its income was redirected to interest payments on exorbitant loans, it will be forced, like Greece, to begin selling off its national assets at bargain prices to the lender nation, as the vultures gather round the carrion.

History’s Rerun

Lenin concludes that peace in capitalist geographies is merely a respite between conflicts. Little more than “the banal philistine fantasies of English parsons”. In effect, Kautsky and the “opportunist” elements of the middle class were doing little more than attempting to unhitch capitalism from imperialism in order to save the system of their own enrichment. A failed project, to be sure, as passage after passage of Lenin’s polemic reads like a lucid profile of the Democratic Party. The Bolshevik leader concludes that, “imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom.” Later he adds that, “…capital can maintain its domination only by continually increasing its military force.” Could there be a better description of our modern dilemma of financial exploitation and military conquest? The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is tens of billions larger than last year’s and supports nearly 900 military installations around the world.

Finally, Lenin remarks that there’s no hope for unity with “the opportunists in the epoch of imperialism.” He points to the bourgeois denunciations of imperial annexations by various powers. Immediately the theatrical denunciations of Russia in Crimea and Syria in its own territory come to mind. Lenin sensibly argues that the author of such condemnations can be, “sincere and politically honest only if he fights against the annexation[s]” his own country makes. Naturally, the beltway liberals are silent on our de facto annexation of parts of Syria, our clandestine coup d’état in Ukraine, our savage use of Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, not to mention a dozen other base camps we’ve established like a necklace of crimes across the planet. As a nation, what we condemn in others, often falsely, we do ourselves. And on a slightly smaller scale, what the Democrats condemn across the aisle, they often do themselves behind a patina of progressive rhetoric. Sophistry and sops from the banquet table of the rich; this is today’s Democratic Party writ large.

The Party Is Dead; Long Live the Party

One quarter of American workers get no vacation time a year. None. Nada. A vast 63 percent don’t have $500 saved for an emergency, let alone anything so exotic as a vacation. Ten percent never leave their state. Ever. Not even to the fair Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, where they might have faintly approximated the glories of Venice, that cradle of Italian statehood. See that luminous city of lit gondolas erected on a swampland as a last resort against the uncultivated hordes. No, they’ve not even got enough money to afford a simulacrum of a real wonder.

The Paladin of Proles

I look at battlers like Bernie Sanders. Sanders is the kind of principled politician who will reel off such statistics with real relish and stump with tireless feeling for the disadvantaged. He’s done more to advance the cause of sanity and decency than any of us, shy of a handful of humans you can count on your fingers: one dissident living in a cloistered embassy in London, one buried in exile deep in the Russian hinterlands, and a third not too long ago released from solitary madness at Leavenworth. Add to that Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad for their willingness to face down the imperium itself. There are likewise a phalanx of Latin American conquistadors too numerous to name. But their likes are doubtless known to you.

Aside from these humble heroes, Sanders ranks near the top of the table of our generational epoch. He recently wrote to me. How I thrilled to his every word until I realized it was a spam email blast to a bought list of consumer-citizens. And yet–it resonated. It was about how Jeff Bezos, in a mere ten seconds, earned more than the average Amazon employee. You know, those anonymous box packers from the sordid sea of underpaid, underfed, undernourished, and underappreciated workers who rely on food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid to make ends meet? Bernie was railing on about how we pay for Bezos’ neglect. Not only does he pay a pittance, but he pays nothing in taxes. Literally. We generously foot the bill for Bezos indifference to his employees’ well-being. All so that balding knave can slink into Langley and court favor with the intelligence mandarins with their security clearance badges swinging from their ammunition belts. A disgrace, croons the Bern. Indeed.

And did you notice the one dishonest word in the last paragraph? I put it there on purpose. The untruth is the word earned. “Earned” is the ultimate euphemism of the rich. How easily humans convince themselves they deserve what they have. How easily the human mind is cozened by fantasies of personal nobility, of preternatural genius. We think we have earned, by dint of our unconquerable will, what has fallen to us more by virtue of fortune than by virtue itself. We are clearly not evolved to be soothsayers. We are evolved to lie, mostly to ourselves, but a lot to others, too. Just ask Robert Trivers, who investigated the selection pressures for self-delusion. Bezos earned nothing of that money. His abject crews in hot factories and steamy trucks did the labor. He tabulated the profits. Or rather his accountants did.

Ever notice how the bourgeoisie, if you stand in their midst, say, during a backyard barbecue, will attribute to themselves all manner of labor? For instance, one might hear, amid the general bonhomie of men with silk palms and thick mouths, “Yeah, I just built a new driveway made of pebbles. Really beautiful. Set my house apart from the neighbors. Everyone else just slaps down a concrete driveway. No imagination, these people.” Unfortunately, the ensuing questions will not include, “My God, man, that must have been back-breaking labor? How the devil did you accomplish it, given your day job?” No, the questions will rather include, “How much did it cost? You pay a contractor or just hire cheap Mexican labor?” There are million conversations like this. And somehow, thanks to the rentier theology spawned some time back in the Adam Smith epoch, men (mostly men) have largely convinced themselves that the bounty that accrues from their initial capital investment ought to be theirs and theirs alone. Mind you, a small percentage may be permitted to trickle down to the proles, lest they distribute pitchforks and come for us in the night.

Hoisted By His Own Petard

And so it is with the kingpins that sit atop the gross pile of tangled humanity. Like Bezos. So I look at men like Bernie and am reminded of a couple of images. One is some Victorian derivation of Don Quixote riding forth from La Mancha, standard in hand, ready to charge at windmills along the bleak horizon. A man chasing a cause long lost. A man battling a foe long crowned. Another is from the latest Bond flick, Spectre. Bond’s old nemesis, the grizzly Mr. White, poisoned by thallium and near death, tells Bond that his efforts to stop Spectre are risible. He gazes at 007 with a kind of incredulity, and in an ominous wheeze, he declaims, “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond,” before offing himself with Bond’s own handgun. Lovely scene. But this sadly seems to be what Sanders is, a kite of blind hope dancing in a hurricane of malfeasance. To think one can pacify the greed or stanch the corruption from within the hurricane is mere madness.

The liberal class has died and become a front for the zombie banks that care nothing for the working class. The narcotic of financialization has rent Wall Street from Main Street, setting the latter adrift, rudderless in the sea of indifferent politicians. Witnesses to the machinations of capital have been calling for reform since Vladimir Lenin broke with Karl Kautsky and his desire for “vulgar bourgeois reformism.” The Democratic Party cannot and should not and will not be saved or ressurrected or reborn. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood as much when he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He was persona non grata among Democrats for such opinions. Quetzal Cáceres nicely covers the abyssal depths of the Democratic Party and why switching it up is not a creditable platform.

Does the desire to effect such death-defying miracles stem from a faith in the system one so expertly critiques? Perhaps. There are true believers among us. Or does it spring from a need to stay near the herd, to never stray far from its creature comforts and the embrace of kind-eyed peers. Certainly never to stray so far as to stumble into the label of a revolutionary. No, no, no. The jungles are hot. Che ended up with a bullet in the back, gasping his last breath in the wretched shadow of beltway-backed thugs. Better to be an intrepid reformer. Lard your rhetoric with the classic bromides, spice with the odd rebel call. Happy to retain the system (that engine of inequality). We just want to tinker along the edges, friend. Tamper with the tapestry a bit. Perhaps add a new fringe here, a fresh trim there. Nothing serious, you understand.

Nothing that will upend the vast reservoirs of liquid wealth gathered up by the elites. How stealthily they lifted it from the pockets of the working class. Capitalist exploitation is the greatest pickpocket that ever lived. Never been caught. Never been cuffed. Thieve away, fair Capital. Your beat cop is frumpy chalk-haired man in spectacles brandishing a sheaf of damning documents, calling on a dead legislature to conjure living democracy from a blind oligarchy. Spare the demos the false hope, Bernie. There are worse fates than winding up in exile like Ralph Nader, the man you are at great pains not to be. (You may recall the story of author and journalist Chris Hedges asking Sanders before his rise, should he lose the Democratic nomination, whether he’d run as an independent or with a third party. The hand-wringing Vermonter confided that he didn’t want to end up like poor Ralph, a pariah exiled from the fellowship of hypocrites.)

The irony of the reformist clamor is that, as dissenting opinions proliferate on the left bank of the political spectrum, they are just as swiftly foreclosed by a political establishment coercing social media megaliths to suppress the visibility of such dissent. This recrudescent McCarthyism and its New Cold War stimulant, rolled together in the giant hypnotic spleef of Russiagate, are the happy work of the Democratic Party itself. A peremptory device of the establishment to ward off what could perhaps have been a stake-through-the-heart indictment of duopoly politics. Point being, the Democratic Party will no more climb from its grave than Jesus did. Of course, too many believe Jesus did just that. Is the chronic faith in political reform a product of religious faith in resurrection? Credo ergo reformacione? An interesting possibility. A Marxist athiest might agree.

Crib Notes on Late Capitalism

Gordon Gekko, the fictitious corporate raider so memorably personified by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, lectured an assemblage of investors and flaccid board members with this eye-opening burst of insight:

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

Gekko cut to the core of capitalism. He unclothed its essence, he upvoted its pseudo-scientific rationale, and he recognized its dominion over America. We should know by now, all these years and a Great Recession later, that sociopathic late capitalism reduces all morality to a single ethic: increase profits. At any cost. By any means necessary. And always as at a faster pace with fewer hands involved in the assembly, one day to be as seamlessly automated as it is amoral. Even when a throng of angry workers rise up and startle the bourgeoisie from its dogmatic slumber, the subsequent concessions are often piecemeal and temporary. As soon as they are implemented, the animated masses slip back into their consumer coma, and a cadre of capitalist purists, furiously underlining quotes in their laissez faire bibles, begin a massively financed rollback. Without round-the-clock vigilance by a perpetually agitated electorate, the restoration of unchecked plunder seems inevitable. Today that process of unchecked plunder is in full swing. It feels like late capitalism, an exhausted time when the rhetorical salves that once hid the gruesome core of exploitation, have lost their power, revealed as empty platitudes. Late capitalism is perhaps an era unfettered by regulatory regimes or unified labor, in which manufacturing has fled abroad, financialization is pre-eminent, bureaucracies enable blame-shifting and abdication of responsibility at the highest levels, where personal finances are credit-fueled, debt deflation cannibalizes income, and there is no sacred ground that is not ripe for commodification. And crucially, an era in which brutal economic and military aggression has become normalized. Wars are no longer historically bookended epochs, but quotidian realities for millions that live in the crosshairs of imperial greed. A few notes on our present reality and the ways in which we cloak it behind comforting facades:

Acceptable Casualties: What are the consequences of that rollback? Brutal corporate raiding, to be sure, of the Gekko variety. And strip-mining private equity firms like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. And supercharged offshoring kingpins like General Electric. But also extrajudicial murder. Assassinations. Indefinite detention. Saturation bombing. Backing coup d’états birthed at midnight on a distant Maidan. Funding jihadi terrorists in faux uprisings in drought-stricken border towns. Green-lighting neo-Nazi fascists in jackboots with Bandera flags held aloft. Stationing a fleet of drones above the clouds over Yemen, their 24-hour buzz reminding powerless villagers below that their futures and funerals are separated by a hair’s breadth. Launching Tomahawk missiles and flying sorties to destroy legitimate government forces as al-Qaeda terrorists advance toward Tripoli. Enabling a longtime leader’s death by rape in a featureless dune outside of Sirte. Parading tanks and Humvees down the roads of Eastern Europe, shadowing the frontiers of Russia with the clustered muzzles of their long artillery. And, of course, rolling out all the domestic austerities that they pretend must be cut to pay for our protection. And don’t forget jerry-rigging pensions to implode thanks to naive derivative bets placed by deluded municipalities. All to make a quick buck, protect a currency regime, or pulverize resistance to western dominion over MENA energy resources. But that’s just at the national level. On the individual level, the profits system is protected and reinforced and expanded using torture, including simulated drowning and anal rape (Abu Ghraib), slaughtering villagers (Vietnam, Nicaragua), shameless genocide (see history of Native Americans), rampant slavery (see history of African Americans), sending armed terrorists into sovereign nations with the intention of total ruin (Syria, Libya, Nicaragua), and numberless other particularized forms of cruelty against men and women. One of our former arbiters of torture is now assuming command of the CIA, her suburban soccer mom pose pacifying the tired assemblage of corporate supplicants in Congress.

The Pall of Good Intentions: All of this to secure profits (variously euphemized as power, wealth, resources, influence, liquidity, reserve currency, etc.). Of course, these acceptable consequences are acceptable because they can be written off as bad judgment or mistakes. Lapses in foresight. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As national mythologist Ken Burns’ sagacious narrator purred in The Vietnam War, “It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.” This rancid preface is enveloped in the amniotic afterbirth of every act of imperial violence, a postscript rationalization. One can imagine the wizened faces of imperial stormtroopers asking with incredulous naiveté, “What happened?” The Burns documentary is artfully presented, with a master’s touch, and dropped deep into the fog of war from which we can comfortably resolve, “…in war, there is no single truth.” Thus the resolution is no resolution at all. Judgment is judiciously reserved. What cannot be swept under the carpet or plausibly denied, can be amplified into total confusion, confounding even the most discerning observer. In the final analysis, there is no one to blame.

It’s the System! When ill-conceived choices don’t suffice, the blame can be offloaded onto the system itself. As automation in warfare improves, expect more of the moral blame to be shifted to technological malfunctions rather than human error. AI may play in war the same role bureaucracy plays in consumer capitalism, the abdication of responsibility. Remember the middle manager mantra: “Sorry, but that decision is above my pay grade.” This is the requisite assumption of bureaucratic capitalism and the reason why the abdication of responsibility and subterfuge of false historical narratives are so important to the capitalist system. It cannot be conceded that profitability is valued above human life. When such charges are leveled at imperial capital, blame for such inhumane values must be placed on the system, while individuals are set scot free. No major bankers were jailed for the bank-generated mortgage meltdown. No major government figures were jailed for their role in sanctioning torture and war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a consequence, a torturer now runs the CIA and banks have leveraged their derivative bets beyond 2008 levels. Obama launched the largest covert CIA operation since Afghanistan in Syria, ultimately generating the cauldron that displaced half the country and killed half a million. But his staunchest defenders will swiftly lift the accusations from their paladin’s slim shoulders, dust off his lapels, and deposit the blame squarely on the monolithic system itself. No one is powerful enough, therefore no one bears responsibility. Given the casuistry of capital, it any wonder then that the wages of capitalism are so often death?

Capital Fight, Capital Flight: Most of us don’t think of wars as capitalist wars. But what else are they? The United States has established bases inside of Syria’s predominantly oil-rich Kurdish region. That war itself began, conspicuously, not long after Bashar Al-Assad opted to back a gas line built with Russia and Iran over one involving Qatar and Turkey. Wars against Iraq and Libya were both conspicuously ramped up not long after those nations floated the idea of abandoning the US petro-dollar. And you know how temporary installations morph into permanent occupations. Baghdad’s Green Zone didn’t start out as a Bellagio-on-the-Tigris, but soon became a permanent encampment, even if it is now euphemistically named, “the international zone.” Military contractors still have a considerable presence there (surely cheered by the citizenry) and the American wrecking crew has whittled its official footprint to world’s largest ‘embassy’ cum occupation zone. Iraq, too, was a resource war, and yet is not generally grasped as a distinctively capitalist conflict. But the only apparent alternative to foreign exploitation in a rent-seeking system is capital flight.

Savagery as Security: The evidence of bloody exploitation is all around us, but most of it beyond our borders and across abyssal seas most of us have never crossed. Hence the worthlessness of this system of plunder for the majority is better grasped by people living outside the walls of our doctrinal system. People living in the 57 countries we’ve attempted to overthrow since WWII. People living in occupied territories, alongside the 800 military bases we’ve flung like a net across the planet. People living beneath the drone arsenals that float in the sky, or those in nations that suffered the 51,000 bombs President Obama let drop in the final two years of his presidency. These acts are all, suffice it to say, forms of aggression defined as defensive measures. Obama was thus the perfect avatar of imperial conquest, a man who neither seemed capable of anger or interested in expansion. Unlike snarling Dick Cheney and more akin to soothing Bill Clinton, Obama provided the necessary update on Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in 1984 and 1988, tweaking the persona from that of an impassioned African-American decidedly on the side of the working class to one of a cross-class unifier who healed divisions with a kind of amiable centrism. And so Obama and the Democratic Party merely inhabited the emptied husks of progressivism, while embodying in practice the regressive rollback of worker advances.

Domestic Digs: Evidence may be bloodier abroad, but the wages of capitalist globalization have also been coming home to roost for some time. The millions of middle class jobs exported abroad to line the coffers of rich shareholders and impoverish the sad ledgers of working men and women. If there is a definition of the word ‘sellout,’ it ought to sit astride the logos of companies like GE, Walmart, Nike, JP Morgan, Lockheed Martin, and Halliburton. Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide thanks to the ‘liberalization’ of markets, permitting western multinationals to savagely undercut subsistence farmers in nations like India, and deliberately drives them into urban slums to fortify the surplus army of cheap labor available to faceless capital. Now New York taxi drivers are killing themselves, unable to continue working 16 hour days for ever-declining wages while mobile sweatshops like Uber and Lyft lobby for deregulation, undercut the wages of the entire industry, and hire a multicultural new CEO with a kindly face who softly promises helpful innovation for all. Capitalists fear a falling rate of profit, but care nothing for the falling rate of wages. As Marxist geographer David Harvey said, capitalism will cannibalize the source of its own wealth–something no PR campaign can cure. Every revenue stream will be bled dry. Harvey also said capitalism’s current form, a viciously anti-state neoliberalism, is a conscious project of class restoration, a war on workers by elite shareholders looking to restore their class privilege, despite their role as a parasitic rentier class that induces debt deflation in the larger economy. If labor mis-attributes its travails to personal inadequacies, it likewise misses the fact that it is under attack. Labor is kept afloat through credit, with student, credit card, mortgage, and auto debts all swelling past the trillion-dollar threshold in the U.S. With that increase in debt come obvious corollaries: the one percent grabbed 95 percent of the overhyped recovery in America, while the overlapping global one percent will own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030.

Class Blinders: In practice, capitalism is primarily about the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor. That’s what Barack Obama signaled to elite constituencies when he campaigned for president, a willingness to either look the other way or facilitate exploitation. Even if he believed the lofty rhetoric he ventriloquized through his Ivy League education. Donald Trump may perhaps be a bit more aware that capitalism is red in tooth and claw. But like Gekko, he merely recites the tiresome credos of Social Darwinism, the naturalistic fallacy that conservatives and ambitious financiers never stop falling for. It may be the only method of rationalizing their success as the product of their intrinsic talents, rather than a stroke of fortune delivered by a confection of birth, breeding, temperament, and natural ambition. Marx was right when he proposed a materialist conception of history. Our circumstances do shape our consciousness. The rich have been taught to take credit for their successes and externalize responsibility for their failures. A tireless work ethic provides the moral backdrop to every Fortune 500 profile, but for every bankruptcy, regulation and taxation are reviled. On the flip side, the elite media never tires of conditioning the poor to do the reverse: self-indict for their failures and thank affirmative action and America for their successes. Read Adam Johnson on “perseverance porn,” the celebration of disenfranchised peasants who endure intolerable conditions. As such, too often the exploited blame themselves for their exploitation, and the exploiters blame the system for their failures (the system they rely upon in times of crises).

Money Never Sleeps: No matter, Gordon Gekko had it right. Greed is good–for the one percent. After all, they seem to be the only ones benefiting from institutionalized cupidity of imperial capitalism, for which all are blameless but from which only a handful may benefit. That its unchecked bacchanalia came to a juddering halt in Mesopotamia has bedeviled the plutocrats at the helm of the global capitalism. Their loyal serfs in the military-financial complex have demonstrated alarming judgment since the Syrian conflict began. The plutocrats surely fear their unipolar moment is being threatened by a poker-faced piker in the Kremlin and his infuriatingly refined ally in Damascus. The nervous frenzy in the western media only reflects the disturbed priorities of the corporate state. Perhaps the only question left appears to be whether Washington will make good on its implicit wish to use small nukes to salvage its hegemony, or strategize a more successful use of criminal sanctions, proxy forces and soft coups to redraw the balance of power to their liking. Either choice will entail not only decimation abroad but vacuuming more taxes from social need into metastasizing budgets that fuel military aggression and police a restive homeland. Peace and prosperity are not in the cards. As the infamous Margaret Thatcher said of capital’s creed: “There is no alternative.”

Colonizing the Western Mind

Photo by Marco | CC BY 2.0

In Christopher Nolan’s captivating and visually dazzling film Inception, a practitioner of psychic corporate espionage must plant and idea inside a CEO’s head. The process is called inception, and it represents the frontier of corporate influence, in which mind spies no longer just “extract” ideas from the dreams of others, but seed useful ideas in a target’s subconscious. Inception is a well-crafted piece of futuristic sci-fi drama, but some of the ideas it imparts are already deeply embedded in the American subconscious. The notion of inception, of hatching an idea in the mind of a man or woman without his or her knowledge, is the kernel of propaganda, a black art practiced in the States since the First World War. Today we live beneath an invisible cultural hegemony, a set of ideas implanted in the mass mind by the U.S. state and its corporate media over decades. Invisibility seems to happen when something is either obscure or ubiquitous. In a propaganda system, an overarching objective is to render the messaging invisible by universalizing it within the culture. Difference is known by contrast. If there are no contrasting views in your field of vision, it’s easier to accept the ubiquitous explanation. The good news is that the ideology is well-known to some who have, for one lucky reason or another, found themselves outside the hegemonic field and are thus able to contrast the dominant worldview with alternative opinions. On the left, the ruling ideology might be described as neoliberalism, a particularly vicious form of imperial capitalism that, as would be expected, is camouflaged in the lineaments of humanitarian aid and succor.

Inception 1972

In a short span of time in the 1970s, dozens of think tanks were established across the western world and billions of dollars were spent proselytizing the tenets of the Powell Memo in 1972, which galvanized a counter-revolution to the liberal upswing of the Sixties. The neoliberal economic model of deregulation, downsizing, and privatization was preached by the Reagan-Thatcher junta, liberalized by the Clinton regime, temporarily given a bad name by the unhinged Bush administration, and saved by telegenic restoration of the Obama years. The ideology that underlay the model saturated academia, notably at the University of Chicago, and the mainstream media, principally at The New York Times. Since then it has trickled down to the general populace, to whom it now feels second nature. Today think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institute, Stratfor, Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, Carnegie Endowment, the Open Society Foundation, and the Atlantic Council, among many others, funnel millions of dollars in donations into cementing neoliberal attitudes in the American mind.

The ideological assumptions, which serve to justify what you could call neocolonial tactics, are relatively clear: the rights of the individual to be free of overreach from monolithic institutions like the state. Activist governments are inherently inefficient and lead directly to totalitarianism. Markets must be free and individuals must be free to act in those markets. People must be free to choose, both politically and commercially, in the voting booth and at the cash register. This conception of markets and individuals is most often formulated as “free-market democracy,” a misleading conceit that conflates individual freedom with the economic freedom of capital to exploit labor. So when it comes to foreign relations, American and western aid would only be given on the condition that the borrowers accepted the tenets of an (highly manipulable) electoral system and vowed to establish the institutions and legal structures required to fully realize a western market economy. These demands were supplemented with notions of the individual right to be free of oppression, some fine rhetoric about women and minorities, and somewhat more quietly, a judicial understanding that corporations were people, too. Together, an unshackled economy and an unfettered populace, newly equipped with individual rights, would produce the same flourishing and nourishing demos of mid-century America that had been the envy of humanity.

A False Promise

This ‘Washington Consensus’ is the false promise promoted by the West. The reality is quite different. The crux of neoliberalism is to eliminate democratic government by downsizing, privatizing, and deregulating it. Proponents of neoliberalism recognize that the state is the last bulwark of protection for the common people against the predations of capital. Remove the state and they’ll be left defenseless. Think about it. Deregulation eliminates the laws. Downsizing eliminates departments and their funding. Privatizing eliminates the very purpose of the state by having the private sector take over its traditional responsibilities. Ultimately, nation-states would dissolve except perhaps for armies and tax systems. A large, open-border global free market would be left, not subject to popular control but managed by a globally dispersed, transnational one percent. And the whole process of making this happen would be camouflaged beneath the altruistic stylings of a benign humanitarianism.

Globalists, as neoliberal capitalists are often called, also understood that democracy, defined by a smattering of individual rights and a voting booth, was the ideal vehicle to usher neoliberalism into the emerging world. Namely because democracy, as commonly practiced, makes no demands in the economic sphere. Socialism does. Communism does. These models directly address ownership of the means of production. Not so democratic capitalism. This permits the globalists to continue to own the means of production while proclaiming human rights triumphant in nations where interventions are staged. The enduring lie is that there is no democracy without economic democracy.

What matters to the one percent and the media conglomerates that disseminate their worldview is that the official definitions are accepted by the masses. The real effects need never be known. The neoliberal ideology (theory) thus conceals the neoliberal reality (practice). And for the masses to accept it, it must be mass produced. Then it becomes more or less invisible by virtue of its universality.

A Pretext for Pillage

Thanks to this artful disguise, the West can stage interventions in nations reluctant to adopt its platform of exploitation, knowing that on top of the depredations of an exploitative economic model, they will be asked to call it progress and celebrate it.

Washington, the metropolitan heart of neoliberal hegemony, has numerous methods of convincing reluctant developing nations to accept its neighborly advice. To be sure, the goal of modern colonialism is to find a pretext to intervene in a country, to restore by other means the extractive relations that first brought wealth to the colonial north. The most common pretexts for intervention depict the target nation in three distinct fashions.

First, as an economic basket case, a condition often engineered by the West in what is sometimes called, “creating facts on the ground.” By sanctioning the target economy, Washington can “make the economy scream,” to using war criminal Henry Kissinger’s elegant phrasing. Iran, Syria, and Venezuela are relevant examples here. Second, the West funds violent opposition to the government, producing unrest, often violent riots of the kind witnessed in Dara, Kiev, and Caracas. The goal is either to capsize a tottering administration or provoke a violent crackdown, at which point western embassies and institutions will send up simultaneously cries of tyranny and brutality and insist the leader step aside. Libya, Syria, and Venezuela are instructive in this regard. Third, the country will be pressured to accept some sort of military fettering thanks to either a false flag or manufactured hysteria over some domestic program, such as the WMD restrictions on Iraq, chemical weapons restrictions on Syria, or the civilian nuclear energy restrictions on Iran. Given that the U.S. traffics in WMDs, bioweapons, and nuclear energy itself, insisting others forsake all of these is perhaps little more than racially motivated despotry. But significant fear mongering in the international media will provide sufficient moral momentum to ram through sanctions, resolutions, and inspection regimes with little fanfare.

Schooling the Savages

Once the pretext is established, the appropriate intervention is made. There’s no lack of latent racism embedded in each intervention. Something of Edward Said’s Orientalism is surely at play here; the West is often responding to a crude caricature rather than a living people. One writer, Robert Dale Parker, described western views of Asia as little more than, “a sink of despotism on the margins of the world.” Iran is incessantly lensed through a fearful distrust of the ‘other’, those abyssal Persians. Likewise, North Korea is mythologized as a kingdom of miniature madmen, possessed of a curious psychosis that surely bears no relation to the genocidal cleansing of 20 percent of its population in the Fifties, itself an imperial coda to the madness of Hiroshima.

The interventions, then, are little different than the missionary work of early colonizers, who sought to entrap the minds of men in order to ensnare the soul. Salvation is the order of the day. The mission worker felt the same sense of superiority and exceptionalism that inhabits the mind of the neoliberal. Two zealots of the age peddling different editions of a common book. One must carry the gospel of the invisible hand to the unlettered minions. But the gifts of the enlightened interloper are consistently dubious.

It might be the loan package that effectively transfers economic control out of the hands of political officials and into the hands of loan officers, those mealy-mouthed creditors referred to earlier. It may be the sanctions that prevent the country from engaging in dollar transactions and trade with numberless nations on which it depends for goods and services. Or it might be that controversial UNSC resolution that leads to a comprehensive agreement to ban certain weapons from a country. Stipulations of the agreement will often include a byzantine inspections regime full of consciously-inserted trip wires designed to catch the country out of compliance and leverage that miscue to intensify confrontational rhetoric and implement even more far-reaching inspections.

Cracking the Shell

The benign-sounding structural adjustments of the West have fairly predictable results: cultural and economic chaos, rapid impoverishment, resource extraction with its attendant ecological ruin, transfer of ownership from local hands to foreign entities, and death from a thousand causes. We are currently sanctioning around 30 nations in some fashion; dozens of countries have fallen into ‘protracted arrears’ with western creditors; and entire continents are witnessing huge outflows of capital–on the order of $100B annually–to the global north as debt service. The profiteering colonialists of the West make out like bandits. The usual suspects include Washington and its loyal lapdogs, the IMF, World Bank, EU, NATO, and other international institutions, and the energy and defense multinationals whose shareholders and executive class effectively run the show.

So why aren’t Americans more aware of this complicated web of neocolonial domination? Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who pioneered the concept of cultural hegemony, suggested that the ruling ideologies of the bourgeoisie were so deeply embedded in popular consciousness that the working classes often supported leaders and ideas that were antithetical to their own interests. Today, that cultural hegemony is neoliberalism. Few can slip its grasp long enough to see the world from an uncolored vantage point. You’ll very rarely encounter arguments like this leafing through the Times or related broadsheets. They don’t fit the ruling dogma, the Weltanschauung (worldview) that keeps the public mind in its sleepy repose.

But French-Algerian philosopher Louis Althusser, following Gramsci, believed that, unlike the militarized state, the ideologies of the ruling class were penetrable. He felt that the comparatively fluid zones of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) were contexts of class struggle. Within them, groups might attain a kind of ‘relative autonomy’, by which they could step outside of the monolithic cultural ideology. The scales would fall. Then, equipped with new knowledge, people might stage an inception of their own, cracking open the cultural hegemony and reshaping its mythos in a more humane direction. This seems like an imperative for modern American culture, buried as it is beneath the hegemonic heft of the neoliberal credo. These articles of false faith, this ideology of deceit, ought to be replaced with new declarations of independence, of the mind if not the mainstream.

Consensus and Complicity

There’s nothing less democratic than bipartisanship. The term itself is a ruse that falsely indicates universal consensus where there is really only a minority consensus among elites — and their sniffling lemmings in the bourgeois press. The bipartisan consensus is a tireless ogre that roams the demotic plain, kneecapping democratic debate wherever it presents itself. It crushes fledgling dialogue, suppresses the flash of dialectical insight. And that is precisely what the bipartisan consensus is meant to do, because the one percent knows full well that, like Chairman Mao once limned, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” Best keep the potboiler of debate under vice grip.

Another phrase to describe subjects on which there is no debate on Capitol Hill is “nonpartisan issues,” a term coined by notorious Cold War enthusiast Dean Acheson. But nonpartisan topics are simply policies agreed upon by the one percent, whose unanimity renders all further discussion superfluous. Yet they are almost always policies about which the global public is deeply divided: healthcare, war, military budgets, social programs, education. Even in the U.S., where the inescapable reach of propaganda artificially biases millions in favor of elite opinion (which is nearly always against their own interests), even then, these policies rip communities apart. The 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza astonished the world with its brutality. For the first time in a long time, the nets of Zionist propaganda shredded and the issue exploded into public consciousness. But this is what the universal agreement in the halls of Congress want so desperately to dodge.

Case in point. A couple of weeks ago on CNN a report surfaced of some Arab legislators in the Knesset protesting the appearance of Vice President Mike Pence, who was on hand to confirm President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and to announce that he’d be moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to the ancient city sometime next year. The report laid out the bare facts of the matter, that the Arab bloc in the Knesset was furious about Pence’s appearance and was forcibly removed by security. One watched as the angry Arabs were pulled and pushed and finally shoved out of the body politic by a phalanx of Jewish legislators. The next clip showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a handful of other smug elites vigorously applauding the ejection of the unruly protesters. Rather than detail what the Arab parliamentary Balad party was protesting, the reporter merely hastened to add that Netanyahu and his thuggish coterie were not clapping for the protest, but rather for its suppression. Not that any viewer with a pulse would have thought otherwise, but it’s always best to make sure. To that same end, or rather to a different one, the White House video feed was abruptly cut off as soon as the ruckus began.

The article that supported the video report naturally repeated Pence’s miserly blather about a two-state solution, a concept that the administration had just cruelly undermined with its needless publicity about Jerusalem and the embassy. (Evidently, the president felt it was time for another spineless genuflection at the throne of Zionism.) But this is a textbook example of bipartisanship at work in the media, which habitually parrots the blandishments of the state about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which itself is a diaphanous euphemism with no tether to reality. Any journalist with a trifle of historical awareness would note that American leaders have been rehearsing the tired tropes of diplomacy for decades, while the vice grip on Gaza and the appropriation of land in the West Bank continues apace. Don’t for a minute assume that there’s not an inverse relationship between calls for accord and clandestine aggression. The former enables the latter in a vicious cycle of lie and illegality.

The Arab Knesset members were protesting a policy that proposes to annex Jerusalem entirely for Israel. This means denying it as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Always note the denial implicit in the assertion. This policy then buries the prospects for real peace beneath a mountain of insult and prejudice that renders laughable the idea that Washington is an ‘impartial mediator.’ The Knesset contingent were condemning both land theft and mass impoverishment. In the last decade, Israel has launched three brutal assaults on Gaza, producing more captive refugees, debilitating infrastructure so that Gazans only have a few hours of electricity a day and polluted drinking water all day as their economy predictably shrinks under the siege.

Despite these increasingly visible cruelties and deprivations, the bipartisan consensus on Israel is one of the more visible areas of accord in Washington. Barack Obama, frequently profiled for his contentious relations with Netanyahu, happily signed over a record four billion dollars a year to Tel Aviv in military aid, in addition to keeping silent about Israeli abuses. Trump has only extended this largesse and added his indelible rhetorical flourishes just to leave no doubt that he thinks less than nothing of Israel’s Arab prisoners, which include the detention of hundreds of children like Ahed Tamimi, guilty of the crime of resisting the crime of occupation (something stipulated as the legal right of the occupied in the Geneva Conventions).

Not An Isolated Phenomenon

The rhetorical emphasis of peace to disguise violence is not confined to the battle over Jerusalem. Newsweek had a headline last fall that read, “U.S. sends troops to Russian border, officials say they want ‘peace, not war’ with Russia.” Can the mainstream press corps not make an independent judgment on NATO actions without having to parrot a press release from the DOD? Newsweek did exactly the latter, serving as a media pass-through for the transparent lies of the state. This is, in both the CNN and Newsweek examples, an abdication of the fourth estate. The role of journalism is to challenge power, hold it to account, afflicting the comfortable while comforting the afflicted. The kind of faux journalism practiced by these mainstream outlets is plain stenography, a kind of pathological ventriloquism that reifies the dictates of the powerful, and patronizingly peddles them to the powerless.

The platitudes repeated by Pence are by any historical measure entirely worthless, but the CNN journalist is incapable of concluding this, given the sycophancy he has internalized perhaps as a career-saving measure. So, too, the absence of historical knowledge, scrubbed from the tabula by relentless disinformation, allows a droid journalist to transmit falsity without the slightest pang of conscience. In a historical vacuum, there is no cognitive dissonance.

In a similar vein, a 2015 article by The New York Times reviews a Pew Research poll. The article takes as its starting point the legitimacy of potential Russian attack on a NATO nation. Of course, the poll asks European citizens if their countries should defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia, thereby using Russian aggression as a pretext for the research. The article fails to critique the idea that Russia would attack a NATO country. Rather it uses Russian soldiers in Ukraine as a support for the pretext of an expansionist Kremlin, naturally leaving out the defensive nature Russian assistance in a conflict that began with a U.S.-sponsored coup in Kiev and a fascist attack on ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. The western consensus needn’t be challenged.

People sometimes ask how it is that we’ve come to be so anti-intellectual as a culture. Societies built on violence often repress the reality of their origins behind a veneer of noble intentions. Our national narrative tells us we were founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. On paper, perhaps, but what of the actuality? After all, the country was built on unbelievable violence, first the slaughter of the natives, second the enslavement of Africans. Honest reflection was a psychologically costly luxury that most founders couldn’t afford as they forged a nation from the bones of fellow humans.

Our Complicity

By creating the perception of a false consensus, bipartisanship works like a narcotic on the body politic. It lulls us into acquiescence. In the face of disturbing evidence, we rely on leaders from ‘both sides of the aisle’ to supply us with calming rhetoric, with pledges of impartiality, and appropriate gestures of solemnity by which we can distill their pure intentions. Surely, they want what’s best, but the political realities of the situation reduce us to incremental gains. Thus we make token reform the enemy of radical change. It isn’t a “radical reconstruction of society” that we seek, though we desperately need it, but rather a comforting lexicon of vows to pursue a negotiated settlement. A promissory note of future amity. We no longer demand action, just feeling. Just the rehearsed magniloquence and pacifying oratory of the political stalemate. So long as you mouth a desire for a two-state solution, anything else can be plausibly denied behind the fog of politics.

A peace candidate is no longer someone that wants actual peace. Rather he is someone that wants a less costly war than his opponent. The nonpartisan, that is to say bipartisan, agreement that conflict is our lifeblood is a non-issue, as it were. John Kerry and Barack Obama were considered peace candidates when they criticized the management of the Iraq War. Kerry quibbled that we ought to get Interpol involved and Obama thought we should point our biggest guns at Afghanistan instead. Kerry thought we were mismanaging the war, Obama that we were hitting the wrong targets. The latter won a Nobel Peace Prize for shading to the left of a right-wing extremist president, after which he had the effrontery to dazzle the assembled greybeards in Oslo with a pro-war speech. The prize should have been revoked and the entire committee shuttered until further notice, but alas, there’s nothing a corporate liberal likes better than a black man with a message of peace. (Still waiting for our national Malcolm X holiday.)

Christopher Hitchens once pithily described this superficial bipartisanship as, “a consensus a hundred miles wide and a millimeter deep.” So true. Elites confer, agree, and execute. The unwashed demos is never consulted, even though men like Pence deliver messages in the Knesset that supposedly come “from the hearts of the American people.” Wouldn’t it be nice to let the Zionists in Tel Aviv know what the American people really think about dumping billions of dollars a year into Israel’s arsenal of repression? Into their apartheid panopticon? Their ethnically exclusive democracy?

French sociologist Jacques Ellul thought propaganda was a binary construct that was assembled cooperatively between publisher and reader. Ellul said propaganda sustains the western citizen. In a secular world, it replaces religion as his raison d’etre. The reader’s assent is required. We go to the Times to have our values affirmed. If there’s already nonpartisan consensus around an issue, so much the better. It satisfies our wish to opt out of citizenship, get back to polishing our selfies, and piling up consumer debt.

Is all this the sign of a desiccated society that has lost its capacity to resist? Pacified by the drug of consumerism, sated by creature comforts, anesthetized by ubiquitous misinformation. If so, it would only capitalize on our desire to believe. As novelist James Ellroy once wrote in another context, “You carry the seed of belief within you already.” How easy to water the seed with the elaborate conflict-avoidance strategy of unanimity. How easy to settle into received opinion after a weary day at work. Just the thought of a “radical reconstruction of society itself,” to use King’s phrase, exhausts the sleep-deprived mind. More manageable to focus on smaller goals, like supporting stronger safeguards on drone attacks. Unpacking the use of drones themselves — really, is now the right time for that discussion? Like King wrote from a Birmingham jail cell, the real threat is the pacified liberal, the one who offers rhetorical support for your radical program, but counsels patience and advises you that now may not be the best time for your ‘reconstruction.’ Surely some future date will provide ample room for honest democratic dialogue. Just not now.