“Who Controls the Present”*

One distinction of a healthy society is how it treats its past…An insecure and closed nation will distort its history

- Will Inboden, former Senior Director of Strategic Planning in George W. Bush’s National Security Council,June 3, 2009


* This essay is an expanded version of a talk given at a May Day (2010) event held by the anarchist group Wild Rose Collective in Iowa City, Iowa on May 1, 2010 


Thank you for that introduction and for noting that May Day is the international workers’ day going back to the struggle of American workers for a shorter work day and for a world beyond wage slavery. It is richly characteristic of the United States ’ authoritarian political culture that only a small and disproportionately radical number of Americans know the working class meaning of May Day and its origins in connection with the great left-led struggle for an eight hour day within and beyond Chicago in the spring of 1886.[1] That meaning and origins are much more well-known in France and Germany and Bolivia and Ecuador and Venezuela than they are in the U.S.



Instant Amnesia


Think about that for a second. It is hardly accidental. I’m guessing a lot of people here remember the following slogan from the totalitarian state portrayed in George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”[2] Top-down thought control in totalitarian societies like the old Soviet Union and China , Saudi Arabia and the United States[3] today depends among other things on the distortion and deletion of all history that questions the authority and legitimacy of the power elite. It is illegal in China to make any public reference of the bloody slaughter of masses of democracy protestors – including many urban workers, who bore the brunt of the post-massacre repression[4] – in Beijing ’s Tiananmen Square on June 4 1989. The state suppresses independent information sources that might mention the slaughter. Mention of the Tiananmen massacre is forbidden in China[5], where workers are routinely beaten, killed and incarcerated for daring to resist the conditions imposed on them as they make the low cost items we buy at anti-union retail giants like Wal-Mart.[6] According to Will Inboden, a former Senior Director of Strategic Planning in George W. Bush’s National Security Council[7],  “The official denial and censorship has largely served the government’s purpose: most Chinese people are unaware of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and those comparative few who do know of it are coerced into silence.” This is quite shocking to Inboden, who adds an interesting commentary:


“Tiananmen is not just one tragedy but several. There is the tragedy of the bloodshed itself, and then the tragedy of the government’s suppression of history. One distinction of a healthy society is how it treats its past. Every nation creates its own myths, but a confident and free nation will be open about its history, and will allow all of its people — especially dissenters — to examine, debate, contend with, and continually reinterpret the past as new evidence comes to light, all in an ongoing search for truth. An insecure and closed nation will distort its history, and use the past as a crude instrument to control its people in the present.”[8]


It would be interesting to ask the author of this passage how well he thinks it applies if at all to the nation that the Ivy League professor Michael Eric Dyson once called “the United States of Amnesia.”[9] In the U.S. “homeland” (a lovely imperial term passed on from George W. Bush to Barack Obama) at least, our authorities practice generally softer and more sophisticated forms of repression and control (things are often harsher in the hinterland) than those conducted in China . But historical deletion – the throwing of system-threatening history down Orwell’s “memory hole”[10] is a part of the power elite’s tool box inside the United States as well. By now it’s practically instantaneous: history the masters don’t like gets wiped out even as it occurs.


You go to a demonstration against (say) war and/or for social justice, maybe for workers’ rights and/or immigration rights and they don’t generally beat or shoot you in the U.S.   The gendarmes contain your actions into a very small area and the communications authorities ignore and/or mock and misrepresent you. Serious popular protests don’t make the news or if they do they appear in only the most partial, distorted and marginalized way.[11] They and their core messages are quietly purged from the collective memory even as they happen/don’t happen. As the liberal-left political scientist Sheldon Wolin noted in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008):


“The relationship between democratic decline and the [ever more concentrated private] media ownership is demonstrated in the contrast between the [comparatively high] attention paid by Washington and the national media to the sixties protests against the Vietnam War and, four decades later, the virtual blackout of the [many large] protests against the invasion of Iraq…”


“…the [George W. Bush] administration consistently ignored the (anti-Iraq War] protestors.  The media, ever attentive to official cues, followed suit, with belated, condescending, and minimal coverage.”


“…Consider the attempts on the parts of protests groups during the summer of 2004 to enter the public space of the streets in the environs of the conventions of the two national parties.  As the police herded the protestors into the equivalent of cattle pens, the media presented the groups as bizarre and ignored the serious arguments they were attempting to offer.  In effect, the media transformed a political action, intended for the civic education of a public, into a spectacle framed for mass entertainment.”


“…Police control over demonstrators, combined with the media’s censorship of popular protests and of third party activities, produces for [U.S.-style] inverted totalitarianism what Fascist thugs and censorship accomplished for the classic version.”[12] 


Tea Party and Socialism Tied: Who Knew?


A thousand or so white male middle-class suburban and right-wing “Tea-Party” jerks show up to protest the militantly state capitalist Barack Obama’s [13] “socialism” in downtown Chicago and it is front-page news.  The “Tea Party movement’s” noxious, paranoid, and arch-reactionary gatherings[14] are front-page news and their vicious views (essentially identical with the hard-right rhetoric of racist and nativist television and radio personalities like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh) are taken seriously in the “mainstream”[15] reporting and commentary. 


But of course.  The “Tea Party movement” is a fake-populist, primarily Republican-coordinated and elite-funded gathering of relatively privileged folks organized from the top-down.[16] It is deeply consistent with existing corporate and imperial hierarchies.  Serious rank-and-file social movements for peace and justice challenge those hierarchies in ways that the owners, managers, and deeply indoctrinated reporter operatives[17] of corporate- media find irritating. They do not fit very well with the media’s critical function of pleasing advertisers by putting consumers in the mood to buy.


Recently somebody told me with great concern that Gallup reported 37 percent of the American populace giving a favorable response to the term “the Tea Party movement.” I got interested in the survey[18] and while I was looking at the Gallup Web site I ran across a different recent poll showing that 36 percent of Americans respond favorably to the word “socialism.”[19]  That’s quite remarkable, consistent with my longstanding sense that this country could support a third left party if we had proportional representation within “our” electoral and party system (currently organized on a disastrously authoritarian “winner-take-all” basis[20]): more than a third of the U.S. populace give a thumbs-up to “socialism.”[21] Despite decades of right wing and media assault on the concept in the U.S, the approval level for “socialism” is basically identical to that of “the Tea Party.”  But “socialist”[22] sentiment is a complete non-story in “mainstream” media. Why would dominant communications authorities want us to know that 36 percent number? It could be contagious, encouraging people to resist the system that pays big salaries in a dominant media that routinely calls the U.S. a “center-right nation”[23] despite longstanding survey data showing that most Americans hold left progressive positions on numerous key policy issues and societal values.[24] And there’s nobody with a lot of money and affiliated with a major political party putting a thousand “socialists” in downtown Chicago to force the issue.


Against Context


Besides simple deletion of history there’s the savage deletion of context for understanding selectively presented facts. There’s no meaningful past or present context allowed in “mainstream” media for the sensational and terrifying “news” that flashes across our telescreens between the parade of advertisements and mostly vapid (and itself often highly ideological) entertainment programming.[25]  I’m from Chicago where (just like in most major metropolitan areas) there’s a steady drumbeat of horrific crime and murder reporting from inner city black neighborhoods.  There’s never anything about the concentrated misery and poverty that is imposed on those neighborhoods by institutionalized race-class oppression. There’s nothing about the savage job-loss, the hyper-segregation, the absence of opportunity and resources and the generalized subjugation that makes violence and crime predictable in those communities.[26]


The immigration issue is another example. The onslaught of ominous news and commentary on immigration occurs in a giant informational and conceptual vacuum that leaves the field open to nativists like the Arizona legislators who recently passed a shockingly racist anti-immigrant law.[27] Critical aspects of the issue that dominant media refuses to treat in any serious and honest way include the labor-exploiting profit interest of the employer class in stateless workers and the central roles that regressive and repressive U.S. trade and foreign policies play in creating and sustaining the destitution that compels millions of Central and Latin Americans to seek employment (often at great risk) in the United States.


“Why do They Hate us?” How many times have you seen someone on television or in the press advance this query, generally stated with an incredulous of tone of clueless amazement that anyone would actually want to do any harm (imagine) to the wonderful United States? We hear over and over again about scary Evil Others who attack intrinsically noble U.S. soldiers, structures, and symbols for no apparent reason other than deviant hatred of our greatness and of the glorious “freedom” we supposedly champion and embody. The dominant U.S. culture and media keeps most of the “homeland” populace woefully ignorant about how the U.S. has richly earned “anti-Americanism” around much of the planet. As the great British playwright Harold Pinter noted while accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005, brutality and oppression inflicted buy the former Soviet Union were widely known in the West, but the United States’ imperial crimes were hidden. The U.S. Empire might have killed and maimed millions, both directly and indirectly, through wars, invasions, coups, the sponsorship of dictatorships, the training of death squads, the equipping of repressive regimes, economic sanctions, and the distortion of national economies.[28] “But you wouldn’t know it,” Pinter observed.  “It never happened. Nothing ever happened.  Even while it was happening it never happened….It was of no interest.”[29] All that ugly history doesn’t fit the dominant media and politics narrative that “We [the United States ] are and always have been inherently good,”[30] so down the “memory hole” it goes.  


Unmentionable Lessons


It’s the same with domestic radical and workers’ struggles in the American past.  Big Brother[31] the U.S. Version says that we are a democracy, not a corporate plutocracy (dare I say “plutonomy”?[32]) that crushed people who rose up against the concentration of wealth and power. That’s conventional doctrinal wisdom across the acceptable spectrum of opinion in the press, on television, in the movies, the universities and in the two dominant business parties. The history of the people who fought back against the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire[33] doesn’t fit that ruling narrative and so it gets airbrushed out of a history written for and by the winners.


Of course, the architects of policy and opinion don’t particularly want us to know how ordinary working people won past improvements in their conditions and lives – things like higher wages and health care and vacations and the right to send our kids to halfway decent public schools school and safety guards in factories and garbage collected from our streets and shorter hours so that we might have enough time and energy to participate in something approximating a democratic society.  They don’t want us to grasp the vital historical fact that these and other basic gains were attained through collective struggle and the formation of movements and cultures of solidarity. If we really connected with all that we might be encouraged to engage in such struggle and (re-) build such cultures again as they wage their relentless top down class war to roll back our living standards[34] and to extinguish the last sparks of democracy in this country.


“ More Effective Ways to Change the World”


American liberal and labor “leaders” could use some anti-Orwellian history and current events lessons in the current period of soul-numbing “left” surrender. Last year, United Steelworkers of America president Leo Gerard gave a revealingly myopic response when New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse asked him why American labor seemed less willing than European labor to engage in workplace occupations and mass demonstrations.  Gerard “said there were smarter things to do than demonstrating against layoffs — for instance, pushing Congress and the states to make sure the stimulus plan creates the maximum number of jobs in the United States,” by Greenhouse’s account. “Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world,” Gerard told Greenhouse: “Large labor demonstrations are often warranted in Canada and European countries,” but “demonstrations are less needed in the United States … because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.”


Liberal Stanford historian David Kennedy also spoke to Greenhouse on U.S. labor quiescence. “This generation [of workers],” Kennedy proclaimed from his perch atop the ivory tower, has “found more effective ways to change the world. It’s signed up for political campaigns, and it’s not waiting for things to get so desperate that they feel forced to take to the streets.”[35] Gee, wouldn’t it be awful if we all had to “take to the streets”?[36]


What a noxious, fetid pile of crap. How’s that lobby though- and campaign- and vote-for-the-Democrats thing working out for working people?! Barack Obama, the unparalleled pacifier of so-called progressives, is (according to liberal political scientist Thomas B. Edsall last year) “The Kingpin of Corporate Subsidies.” The president has set new records in the transfer of taxpayer dollars to so-called private corporations, starting above all with the leading parasitic financial behemoths that crashed the economy in the first place. [37] His auto bailout includes subsidies for GM to set up yet more plants in cheaper, non-union locations around the world[38] – this as the real U.S. unemployment rate (including involuntarily part-time workers and people who had given up on finding work) has been setting new post-Great Depression records by hitting 17.5 percent (the Bureau of Labor Statistics “U6 Rate” by the fall of 2009) and even (by one calculation including long term discouraged workers) 21 percent last month.[39]


Obama cut a corporatist health “reform “deal that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, making sure to coldly defy technically irrelevant majority public opinion by leaving single-payer health insurance out of the discussion and making corrupt bargains with those companies long ago – last summer – to keep even a public insurance option (supported by 65 percent of Americans in a September 2009 CBS-New York Times poll) out of the package.[40] Obama went to Copenhagen and did the bidding of the energy corporations by coldly undermining any serious move towards desperately needed mandatory carbon emission reductions for the industrialized states that account for the lion’s share of global climate change.[41]  That’s “Change we can Bereave in,” as the radical writer Mickey Z says.[42]


Obama’s not really going to seriously control Wall Street[43]; he sure isn’t going to cut its “too-big- [and powerful-] too fail” behemoths down to size. He hasn’t done and won’t do anything to move on his disingenuous campaign promises to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (to include new labor and environmental protections) and push the Employee Free Choice Act[44], which could have re-legalized unions in this country, where private sector union density is back to historic lows at 7 percent – the “lowest percentage of private-sector workers in unions since 1900” (the New York Times, citing “labor historians”[45]). Capital opposes the EFCA and therefore so does Obama, who went to the headquarters of Caterpillar to sell his stimulus bill last year – to Caterpillar, the first major American manufacturers to smash labor with permanent strikebreaker replacements during the Reagan era.[46] That was a big raised middle finger to the working class and to organized labor.


How about major public works programs to put millions of Americans back to work in green jobs that contributed to the common ecological good in the current moment of grave environmental peril?[47] Barack Obama (a supporter of ecologically disastrous nuclear power and now — as he announced just prior to British Petroleum’s epic offshore oil explosion and leak off the U.S. Gulf Coast! – of offshore U.S. oil drilling) will not seriously consider that.


Obama’s betrayal of American workers reached levels that struck the legendary left U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky as “surreal” last fall. In the summer of 2009, the business press reported that Obama’s transportation secretary traveled abroad in pursuit of contracts with European manufacturers to construct high-speed rail projects with federal funds designated by Congress for U.S. economic stimulus. “At the same time,” Chomsky noted, “Washington is busy dismantling leading sectors of U.S. industry, ruining the lives of the workforce, families and communities….Surely,” Chomsky reflected, “the auto industry could be reconstructed, using its highly skilled workforce to produce what the country and the world needs – ad soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major catastrophe.  It has been done before, after all…But all such matters are off the agenda…”[48] Chomsky recently observed that Obama is now in fact “offering federal stimulus money to Spanish firms to produce the high-speed rail facilities that the US badly needs, and that could surely be produced by the highly skilled work force that is reduced to penury in Ohio.”[49] 


Meanwhile, one of the U.S. Senate’s top “liberals” and a key Obama ally, Dick Durbin (D-IL) recently told “bleeding heart liberals” (Durbin’s phrase!) to open their minds to the federal government’s need to cut Social Security and Medicare for the good of the country.[50] This was fascinating Wall Street Speak from the “progressive” Senator who noted last year that Washington is a den of corruption since “the big banks own the place.”[51]


Obama has passed the biggest Pentagon budget in history[52], itself a giant subsidy to high-tech corporations like Boeing and Raytheon.  This is consistent with leading Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley’s observation to investors one day after Obama’s presidential election victory: “Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend.”[53] Along the Empire’s New Clothes (Obama) has “kept the U.S. global machine set on kill” (Allan Nairn[54]) as he conducts his deeply provocative (in the Muslim world) child-killing five-front petro-imperialist terror war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia[55] and as he militarizes U.S. policy in Latin America and Africa and provokes nuclear Russia.[56]


It is an interesting reflection on U.S. political culture that nobody frets about the imminent fiscal insolvency of the Pentagon, which enjoys an open-ended taxpayer commitment for endless funding.[57]  This is no small commitment:  at $1 trillion a year[58],  the Pentagon accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending and maintains “800 to 1000 bases scattered across the world” (Chicago Tribune columnist William Pfaff), including more than 130 nations[59] – all in the in the name of something our politicians, professors, and dominant corporate-owned mass media routinely – echoing Oceania’s slogan “War is Peace” [60] – call “defense.”


“The Enemy is a System That Wages War When its Profitable”


Leo Gerard and David Kennedy might want to pay a little more attention to real history beneath and beyond the whitewashed variant that prevails in our political culture.  I want to move toward my finish by remembering a quote from the great left-anarchist and left-Marxist American historian Howard Zinn, who we lost last January, who was loved by millions of students and readers, who took “to the streets” on more than one occasion[61] and who was quite naturally never accepted as a peer by most academic historians, whose job (though they would deny it) it is to help coordinate collective memory in accord with the interests of the rich and powerful. In early 2008, Zinn wrote something that the United States ’ current wilted crop of so-called progressives[62] might reflect upon if they ever want to wake up from their Obama-induced slumber. He wrote against what he called “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left”: 


“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years [Zinn argued,]  because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.”


“And sad to say, the Presidential contest has mesmerized liberals and radicals alike…Would I support one candidate against another [Zinn asked]? Yes [he answered,] for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.”


“But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”


“Let’s remember that even when there is a "better" candidate, that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore….. It won’t mean anything unless it is met with rebellion from below…”[63]


Leo Gerard and the rest of his overpaid labor-bureaucratic ilk can talk all they want about the top-down campaign and lobbying efforts.  Real gains for the working class majority are only going to be won today like they were achieved in previous periods: through direct and collective actions sparked by dedicated cadres who refuse to bow down before the Gods of greed, private poverty and polite, middle-class decorum. We got a glimpse of what’s required nearly a month after Obama was elected and more than a month before he was inaugurated.  That’s when a militant, largely immigrant-based union local in Chicago occupied the door and window factory of an absconding employer to demand the compensation that was due them. The union and its supporters mounted a highly effective public relations campaign highlighting the harsh disconnect between the massive federal bailouts that were being made to parasitic “too big to fail” banks and the economic misery being imposed on ordinary working Americans who did enjoy government protection. “They Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out” was the slogan.  This quintessentially working class and unapologetically populist struggle quickly became a highly popular cause celebre not just in Chicago but across the country and internationally.  It even held the corporate media’s news cycle for a couple days. Support for workers who had technically broken the law by staging an occupation of their workplace was widespread.  The President-Elect felt compelled (against his deeply conservative[64] grain) to endorse their action – probably his shining progressive moment!


The Republic Door and Window workers struck a chord of populist dissent that resonated across the country. They didn’t wait to get the okay from Barack Obama or the Democratic Party or any other politicians or elected officials or with electoral considerations in mind.  They had developed and utilized the rank-and-file institutional capacity to undertake a morally righteous direct action at the immediate shop-floor and community levels and thereby forced events from the bottom, compelling media and politicians to follow in their wake. We need hundreds and then thousands of little, big and merging epic fights like the one fought in Chicago two Decembers ago.  That’s where the real and relevant hope for change can be found, not in the masters’ elections and candidates, not in the “pull” of lobbyists, and not in the promises and actions of politicians. Tellingly enough, U.S. labor “leadership” learned nothing from the Republic Door and Window action and undertook no steps to replicate it across the country[65] in the sorts of ways that could win actual and concrete gains for working people.


If you want to hear a voice of “rebellion from below,” the kind of voice we started to hear at the Republic Door and Window plant in Chicago two Decembers ago, don’t listen to me.  Listen to a young ex-soldier named Mike Prysner speaking to a meeting of Iraq Veterans Against the War last December.  After relating his inability to participate any further in the de-humanizing conduct of U.S. foreign and military policy in the Middle East and after characterizing the Iraq occupation as the U.S. sending “poor and working in this country” to “kill poor and working people in another county [and] to make the rich richer,” Prysner focused on the real threat to “homeland security” in the United States. “Without racism,” Prysner noted, “soldiers would realize that they have more in more in common with the Iraqi people than they do with the billionaires who send us to war.”


“I threw families on to the street in Iraq ,” Prysner said, “only to come home and see families thrown on to the street in this county in this tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis.” Prysner related his realization “that our real enemies are not in some distant land….The enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable. The enemy is the CEOs who lay us off from our jobs when it’s profitable. It’s the insurance companies who deny us health care when it’s profitable. It’s the banks who take away our homes when it’s profitable. Our enemy is not 5000 miles away. They are right here at home.” [66]


Now that’s the real live radical American May Day shit right there, brothers and sisters. Some of these Johnson County (Iowa) Democrats and labor bureaucrats around here might want to put that in their Obama pipe and smoke it. That’s how actually left and radical activists, workers, soldiers, and intellectuals have felt and thought since long before the Diggers and up through Marx and the Haymarket Martyrs and Joe Hill and Eugene Debs and Howard Zinn to the present day. Thank you very much.


Paul Street’s next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, July/August 2010).  Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis ( New York : Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Segregated Schools : Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York : Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, 2008).




1 See Bryan Palmer, Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression ( New York : Monthly Review, 2000), 315-316. The best social history of the Eight Hour and radical movements and the related Haymarket bombing and subsequent mass repression of radical and labor activists in Chicago is Bruce C. Nelson, Beyond the Martyrs: A Social History of Chicago’s Anarchists, 1870-1900 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986).  See also James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America ( New York : Pantheon, 2006.


2 George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949), 32.


3 On the shocking (for many, even on the left) that the US . might be or be in real danger of becoming a totalitarian society, see Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism ( Princeton , NJ : Princeton University Press, 2008); Alex Carey, “The Orwell Diversion,” pp. 133-139 in Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997).


4 Elizabeth Dalziel, “ Tiananmen Square : Workers Bore the Brunt of Repression,” Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1989, at http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2009/0604/p06s14-woap.html


5 Dan Martin, “China Tightens Information Controls for Tiananmen Anniversary,” Agence France Press (June 2, 2009); “Tiananmen Square Massacre,” inthenews.co.uk(June 4, 2008), at http://www.inthenews.co.uk/infocus/view-from-abroad/in-focus/tiananmen-square-massacre-$1225735.htm



6 Rob Weil, “Conditions of the Working Classes in China ,” Monthly Review (June 2006).

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