Blowing The Roof Off The Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy
Robert W McChesney
Monthly Review Press
Published November 2014
The work of renowned media critic Robert McChesney “has been of extraordinary importance”, says the “world's top public intellectual”, Noam Chomsky. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to McChesney about his new book, Blowing The Roof Off The Twenty-First Century.
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You explain in the introduction to Blowing The Roof Off The Twenty-First Century that this is a collection of recent essays. To what extent would you agree that it also serves as a neat summary of your past few books?
The essays continue along the lines of my recent work, but are for the most part original research that go into new related areas. Four of the chapters were written specifically for the book and give it a general coherence, and a central argument. The other essays comprise what I have been told by others as some of my best writing. I think as articles they got lost in the shuffle. The hope is that by creating this book, these articles get more attention. So far, people who have read the book say it’s the closest thing to a “page-turner” that I have written. These are exciting times and I think the book captures the momentous period we are entering.
You say in the book, "I have considered myself a socialist since I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and I still do". You also note how polls have shown the term "socialism" is becoming more popular. But you say, "when I deal with immediate political struggles, I prefer the term post-capitalist democracy to the term socialism". What sort of reactions have you been getting to the term "post-capitalist democracy"?
I am glad you ask me this, because this is an important part of the book. For 30 years now many scholars, mainly self-identified as being on the left, have been post-structural, post-modern, post-colonial. My problem with all of that stuff is that it took its eye off the ball when it should have been post-capitalist. My use of the term is to get the discussion where it ought to be, on the conflict between really existing capitalism—not the fairy tale version provided by politicians and pundits—and democracy. The problem with using the term socialism is that, at least in the US, it tends to get the discussion sidetracked to deal with all the baggage the term socialism carries. The opponents of progressive social change revel in that “debate”, and have mountains of bullshit to heap upon it. They can avoid dealing with the way power actually works in the here and now. You end up debating arcane and often inane points rather than address the great crises of our times that require attention and action. Most people understandably tune out. The reaction to the term has been very positive, though it took some time for some of my more dedicated socialist friends to grasp that I was not rejecting socialism or making some programmatic move to the right. After all, the point of the term is that job one is to replace capitalism, and the new system should be based on democratic institutions and values. If that does not describe socialism, what does?
Robert McChesney is calling for a "post-capitalist democracy".
You note how you are not hostile to small business, having "started two successful concerns in my life, one a commercial rock music magazine and the other a nonprofit public interest group". A powerful part of the book is your honest admission that you sought out cigarette advertisers for your rock music magazine, "The Rocket", to stay solvent - and contested an editor who suggested you run an article critical of such companies. You must see constant examples of this in the media. Would you like to talk about a few?
The relevant point here is that people adapt to organisational structures and imperatives and internalise the necessary values to succeed. So while we hold individuals accountable, the solution is to change the institutions so that better behaviour is encouraged and embraced and anti-social behaviour is discouraged. What could be a better example of that than professional journalism, which in the US was an accommodation between monopoly news media owners and their workers? The way professional journalism has evolved is that legitimate news stories are those countenanced by people in power. So when people in power do not talk about an issue or debate it because they all agree — like whether the US has the right to invade any country it wishes, or whether all these trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership undermine democratic governance and give immense power to a handful of corporations and billionaire investors — then it is not a legitimate news story. Working journalists have internalised the idea that this is not a real news story because their sources are not debating it. It is seamless.
You note how the richer people are, the more likely they are to vote, and you suggest that, "if 80 percent of all Americans voted, the current parties as they are known and understood likely would be considerably different from what they are today, or they would not exist". In Australia, voting is compulsory, yet politics is ruled by the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party, who resemble the US Democrats and Republicans. To what extent would you say this illustrates your point that "democracy requires an informed participating citizenry, and such a citizenry can only exist with a strong and vibrant journalism"?
You raise a very important point about not romanticising high voter turnout as a panacea. Though as an American, I would certainly like to see what would ever happen if this country did double its voter turnout since the new votes would come disproportionately from the dispossessed. And thank you for answering the question as well. Just voting is not enough. There has to be a democratic infrastructure or news media, political parties, and other rules and institutions to give the vote power. In the USA, the only way voter turnout will increase would be as part of a vast social movement that would of necessity develop that democratic infrastructure. In the USA, those in power know their control requires low voter turnout and they will fight on this issue as if their very survival depends upon it.
You campaign for the idea of "letting every American over the age of eighteen direct up to $200 of government money annually to any nonprofit medium of his or her choice". Until that happens in the US and elsewhere, non-profit publications like Green Left Weekly face an increasingly difficult struggle to survive and be seen. What do you think such publications can do to increase their audiences?
You save the most difficult question for last! Alas, I do not have much to add beyond boilerplate aphorisms. The sad truth is that having a credible media requires political policies to exist. There is no other way. In periods of great social movements left media can rely upon organised left groups to provide significant funding. But in times like these, left media flounder. But media like Green Left Weekly are our lifeline to the future, so those of us who use these media have a responsibility to support them. And if someone has the good fortune to be able to make an especially large donation they need to do so, because there are countless people who rely on these media who do not have the ability to give anything at all.
Read GLW's interview with McChesney about his book on the internet and capitalism, Digital Disconnect.