This essay is based on a talk Street gave at a panel on “The Marginalized Left” at the Left Forum in New York City last June. The final section of his talk (deleted here for reasons of length and because the author has addressed the section’s topic numerous times on ZNet and elsewhere) focused on various ways in which the nation’s dominant mass media (including its richly ideological and propagandistic entertainment wing no less than its more officially propagandistic news and public affairs dimension) work to marginalize left politics, values, and activists in the U.S. What follows below is a write-up of Street’s “preliminary remarks” on “left marginalization” in the U.S. past and present – comments that turned out to be less, or more, than introductory, somewhat to the amusement of his audience. Street has added some supporting material in three endnotes written on Sunday, August 18th, 2013.
Thank you all for coming out today. In a bit I’m going to say a few things about what I’ve observed in regard to the media’s pivotal role in the marginalization of the left over the last couple of decades or so. Before I do that, however, I want to sketch out some broader context and meaning for those observations with some preliminary remarks – I really should say not-so preliminary remarks ….nine to be exact.
Socialism or Barbarism if We’re Lucky
My first preliminary remark is that if you agree with Noam Chomsky’s talk this afternoon that an inherently eco-cidal U.S. and global state capitalism poses an ever more imminent threat to human survival and that we are going to have to undertake a radical reconstruction of society in order to avert environmental catastrophe…if you share that opinion, then this problem of the marginalization of the left in the world’s richest and most powerful nation is no small or merely academic question. The great Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros was right in 2001 to update Rosa Luxembourg by saying that “it’s socialism or barbarism if ‘we’re lucky…. Public Support for Radical Transformation
My fourth preliminary remark is that the left is not marginal in the United States because it has no potential mass constituency. Polling data has shown for many years that most U.S. citizens – most members of the American working class majority – repudiate big money corporate and financial dominance of U.S. politics. Most Americans reject harsh socioeconomic disparity and the ruination of social and ecological health in service to the rich and powerful. The vast majority prefer a roughly egalitarian society where wealth and power are well distributed and the government is run by and for the populace in pursuit of the common good. “T
My fifth remark is that no comprehensive account of what has tended to make the left marginal in United States history past or present can be limited to the role played by the media. Endless volumes and essays by generations of historians, political scientists, sociologists and others have been dedicated to examining the different factors that have come together to bring about that result. The factors mentioned include repression, of course, but also the distinctive ethno-cultural diversity and racial fragmentation of the American working class, the remarkable advantaged position of American capitalism in the world economic system, the absence of a feudal and absolutist past prior to the rise of capitalism and giant corporations in America, the vast size and spread of the North American continent, the role of the frontier and later global empire in diluting class consciousness, and the distinctive and hostility of the non-proportional American winner take all elections and party systems to independent left politics. I could go on.
My sixth preliminary remark is that nobody here should think that repression has been a factor in left marginalization only in the bad old days – in the past. The state repression factor is alive and well, as anybody who participated to a significant degree in the Occupy Wall Street movement or in last year’s mass demonstrations against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Chicago can tell you. We know that the The nation’s ever more militarized police departments are today and have for years been loading up with an array of so-called “nonlethal crowd-control technologies” designed to pretty much abolish the right of public assembly – terrible things like the “Long Range Acoustic Device,” a sonic cannon that can cause total hearing loss for protesters who refuse to disperse at authorities’ command. They’ve got tools and technologies worse than that and it seems likely that small drones have already been deployed against protestors inside the U.S.
On repression, I want to quote the progressive economist and journalist Jeff Madrick in Harper’s Magazine last March. “I
The Media is Part of the Establishment
My seventh not-so preliminary remark is that the corporate mass media is doing its job – playing its basic institutional role within modern capitalism – when it works to marginalize the left. That media isn’t simply beholden to the corporate-capitalist establishment through advertising contracts. It is itself a very significant and powerful of that establishment. (It might actually be the most powerful section of that establishment, given its awesome capacity to shape popular perceptions.). Here I always like to mention what Noam Chomsky tells that college kid from a student newspaper in the documentary film “Manufacturing Consent.” Expecting the dominant corporate mass media to tell the real and full truth on current realities is like expecting General Motors’ company newspaper to give all the facts on its exploitive labor practices or on its plants or on its environmentally disastrous practices or on its attempts to bribe politicians or avoid taxes at home and abroad.
(The last two “preliminary remarks” were deleted from the original talk for reasons of time) My eighth remark is that not all the forces and factors that tend to make the left marginal are external to the left. Some are internal, something I’d be happy to talk about more in the Q&A.
My ninth remark is that there are many moments in U.S. history when left values, organizations, and activists have transcended marginalization to impact and even shape national and world history in significant and positive ways. (I think most particularly but not exclusively of the 1930s and the 1960s). I think that (mostly young) people of the actual Left started to do that to some extent in the late summer and early fall of 2011, through the Occupy Movement (perhaps I should say the Occupy moment). I am convinced that that story is far from over – thanks in large to the ongoing deep failures and crises of capitalism and the fading of its capacity to offer outwardly progressive ameliorations – and that the real and serious left will make more and more powerful interventions in the historical process in coming years and decades. I also believe that it is essential for them to do so, for reasons stated in my first “preliminary” comment….
Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, January 2014). Street’s many essays on corporate media include “Imagine a People’s Media in Chicago,” ZNet (May 24, 2013), http://www.zcomm.org/imagine-a-people-s-media-in-chicago-by-paul-street; “’T ZNet Magazine (January 3, 2006); “Thought Control,” ZNet Magazine (April 27, 2004); “Killing Us Softly: Politics and Entertainment,” ZNet Magazine (April 21, 2004); “More Than Entertainment: Neal Gabler and the Illusions of Post-Ideological Society,” Monthly Review (February 2000): 58-62http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=10461 For post-OWS episodes indicating the police state’s determination that nothing like Occupy ever emerge again in New York City, see David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (New York: Speigel & Grau, 2012), xi-xii, and Hedges’ account (in “America is a Tinderbox”) of military veterans’ attempt to assemble at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New York City in October of 2012. “Look, we're vets, we don't want to arrest you,” NYPD officers told the protestors, “but the Occupy movement messed it up for you because we can't allow another one.”
3. The progressive economist and historian Gar http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/15680-the-question-of-socialism-and-beyond-is-about-to-open-up-in-these-united-states. 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The vast majority of Seattle people are facing a city that is becoming increasingly unaffordable for them.” See Lewis Kamb, “Growing Wealth Gap Spurs on Socialist in Seattle Council Race,” Seattle Times, August 11, 2013, http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021593643_kshamasawantxml.html