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American Disconnect

Politics, Money and the New Media

by DOUG DOWD

DOLLAROCRACY: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney

DIGITAL DISCONNECT: How Capitalism Is Turning The Iintenet Against Democracy. by Robert W. McChesney

The authors of these excellent books (and others of theirs) are continuing to bring back to life the vital 1966 analysis of Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital. In doing so, they are today setting models of their own with their own vigor and their own critiques. McChesney’s book takes a sharp focus on the Internet. The joint book of his and Nichols focuses on U.S. political economy as a whole (with a strong emphasis on the media. /1/

I begin with quotes from both books which show the way: First, from McChesney’s Digital Disconnect:

“Most analyses of the Internet oscillate between utopian bliss and dystopian hell, completely failing to address the relationship between economic power and the digital world…. and just how undemocratic the Internet has become.”

Next from their joint book, DOLLAROCRACY:

“When President Barack Obama was re-elected, some pundits argued that, despite unbridled campaign spending, here was proof that big money couldn’t buy elections. The exact opposite was the case. The 2012 election was a quantum leap: it was America’s first $10 billion election campaign. And it solidified the power of a new class in American politics: the fabulously wealthy individuals and corporations who are radically redefining our politics in a way that, failing a dramatic intervention, signals the end of our democracy. It is the world of Dollarocray.”

Now I turn to their books and my views of where the USA stands socio-economically. I began with quotations of their books, and what follows will consist of many more. It is my hope that those who read this review will go on to seek ways to read these and related books. We have to understand and deal with what’s wrong in today’s world and why, if we are ever to have a good life. Right now we are headed in always more dangerous socio-economic and military directions.

Digital Disconnect

In the Preface of this book, McChesney – hereafter “McC” — sets the dismal stage for what will follow:

Many people today, and certainly many young people, would give anything to have an economy like American capitalism in1972. Inequality was narrowing and barely existed by contemporary standards: good paying jobs were plentiful, the infrastructure was the envy of the world, and governance was downright benign compared to modern corruption. There was a place for young people in the economy. There was hope, something that is awfully hard to muster nowadays….Now that capitalism is in the midst of a global crisis with no apparent end and the state of democratic governance, in the United States, at least, is appalling, it seems high time to take a more critical look at the relationship of the Internet to capitalism and both of them to democracy.

Early on “McC” gives a brief history of the Internet’s birth, its expectations, and its jerk away from being a wonderful set of possibilities into an always more damaging and dangerous set of realities:

“The Internet is the culmination of nearly two centuries of electronic   developments in communication, from the telegraph, photography, telephony, and recording to cinema, radio, television, and finally satellites and computers..

Now, however, and he quotes Ben Scott:

“We are in a triple paradigm shift wherein personal communication, maw media, and market information have been subsumed within the new order so that the distinctions are becoming passe’” The economy has adapted to the Internet and is now populated by digital industries, with colossal firms that mostly did not exist when most Americans were born. The Internet has seemingly colonized and transformed everything in its path.”

Those who are in their teens face an ongoing socio-economy of  low incomes and high prices, but for always rising costs and higher needs for the education to get good jobs.  That’s the world for a high and always higher percentage for them and their parents: unless they are in the top 10% (to say nothing the top one percent):   they are rolling in money at the expense of “the people.”…

How come?  In the 20th century the “common people” of the USA more than once functioned as though they knew what they had to do if “common” was no longer to signify “poor.” We went to work politically in the 1930s – and again for a while; in the years as World War II was ending and, for a few years after into the 1960s and came alive again.  However, as “McC” points out:

“The most striking tension, the one that has been an issue between property systems and self-government from the beginning of the republic, indeed since Athens, has been the conflict between rich and poor caused by the inequality generated by the economy, which can undermine the political equality upon which democracy is premised.

And he quotes Robert Dahl, of Yale University:

‘If income, wealth, and economic position are also political resources and they are distributed unequally, then how can citizens be political equals?

And if citizens cannot be political equals, how is democracy to exist?’

The now widely acknowledged massive increase in economic inequality in the United States in the past three decades poses an existential threat to the possibility of self-government and eventually to many of the freedoms most Americans take for granted….Scholarly research demonstrates that the poor and even middle class have virtually no influence over their elected representatives. Not so for the wealthy.

Now, Dahl again:

‘The ability of wealthy interests to play an outsized role in American elections is merely one manifestation of a long process. Any big-picture assessment of the Internet that disregards the very re al and immediate threat of inequality to self-governance and freedom is going to be flawed from the get-go.’”

In sum, these two important and unusually readable political/ economic books are vitally important as both a basis and a stimulus for a strong political movement – a movement which we must strengthen soon if we are to have a decent society. The ongoing society is run by and for the rich, powerful, and dangerous.

Doug Dowd is an economic historian. His most recent book is Inequality and the Global Economic Crisis. He can be reached at dowd.douglas@gmail.com

Notes

1. McChesney and Nichols are both notably prolific social critics in their many other books and numberless articles. Often but not only, both often write for Monthly Review. As was the case for me, they have been much influenced by Baran and Sweezy; on which, a note: I had the good fortune to work with both Baran and Sweezy over time; Baran when both of us were teaching in the S.F. Bay Area;  Sweezy when he had me “teaching econ” to the Monthly Review staff, or later, .when I had him come to teach at Cornell (which ultimately led to him marrying my ex-wife Zirel who, understandably, fell for him.).