The Mainstream Media and Its Discontents

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Those of you who have been through college know that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience … it is kind of a filtering device which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society.

— Noam Chomsky, What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream, Z Magazine, 1997


It’s easy to forget at times, living in the social bubbles that we all do, that approximately two-thirds of Americans are not university graduates, and thus have not completed the process of “internalizing the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society” that Chomsky was referring to above. This is not one of those times.

Throughout the 2016 primary elections season to date, the “mainstream media,” both “liberal” and “conservative,” along with the establishments of both the Republican and Democratic parties, have been desperately working — at times in a state of barely-concealed panic — to contain, divert, coopt and otherwise neutralize a tsunami of discontent among the “uneducated,” “working class” masses, many of whom are “stubbornly” refusing to cooperate with the extremely expensive simulation of democracy that the corporate plutocracy is forced to stage for us every four years.

These “discontents” have already handed the Republican presidential nomination to Donald Trump, a buffoonish billionaire real estate mogul whose incoherent demagogic ramblings make George W. Bush sound articulate in comparison, and are “childishly” dragging out the coronation of Democrat Hillary Clinton by continuing to vote for a 74-year-old self-proclaimed “socialist” who has had the audacity to talk about Clinton’s shady ties to Wall Street, and the rest of the transnational corporate elite that more or less rules the world at this point, and things like that.

Now, when we talk about the “mainstream media,” it’s easy to end up speaking in overly simplistic terms, as if they were some sort of neo-Orwellian Ministry of Information pumping out bald-faced lies and propaganda that they wanted everyone to mindlessly parrot … but what we’re talking about is something much subtler and more insidious than that, generally.

As Chomsky notes in the brief article referenced above (and in detail in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, with co-author Edward S. Herman), the mainstream media is an informal network of news and opinion sources (i.e. corporations) that together define the “acceptable” boundaries of political and cultural discourse (i.e. what one is allowed to say and how one is allowed to say it), a network owned and operated by people who have “internalized the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society.” In our case, of course, “the surrounding power system in the society” is global Capitalism, or Neoliberalism, or whatever you want to call it. And it is this internalization of capitalist values, and not any type of conspiracy or direct editorial censorship, that produces the mainstream media’s monolithic aspect, despite the fact that reporters and editorialists are “free” to write whatever they want. 

The current election season in the US is providing us with a rather clear example of this. Anyone halfway paying attention has witnessed the mainstream media (both “left” and “right”) operating as a superficially diverse yet essentially monolithic echo chamber … manufacturing public opinion in perfect synchronization as if following a Hill+Knowlton script. According to this script, Clinton is the only reasonable choice for “normal, intelligent grown-ups,” Sanders is the “unrealistic” protest-vote candidate (who is also racist, sexist and sometimes anti-Semitic, depending on the publication and whether he has just won another primary), and Trump is … well, Hitler. One could go back and catalogue the mainstream media’s coverage of the campaign season so far — in both “liberal” and “conservative” news sources — and marvel at their dogged adherence to this simplistic narrative.

Now it remains to be seen whether Trump can be transformed into some “mainstream” version of himself that the liberalize GOP establishment can possibly live with. At the moment, the odds of that happening seem pretty slim, and the big liberalize money is flowing toward Clinton, who has proven her allegiance to the global banking and corporate elites time and time again. (Although I wouldn’t put anything past Trump, who has no real principles whatsoever.) Sanders, meanwhile, is doomed, and appears to be preparing his supporters for the day when he will herd them all into the Clinton camp (i.e. the mainstream) and instruct them to ignore Clinton’s corrupt ties to Wall Street, and her war-mongering and coup-inciting, and so on, because, well … Hitler.

But let’s set the elections aside for the moment and take a look at this concept of “the mainstream,” and what is considered “acceptable” or “normal,” and who produces these concepts for us, and how and why they do that. Now keep in mind we’re not talking about facts; we’re talking about opinion-making, and consensus building, and other such marketing strategies that none of us are completely immune to. (If you’re skeptical about that last statement, please refer back to the extremely effective PR campaigns in advance of the USA’s invasions of Iraq in 1990 and 2003, or ask yourself whether butter is good or bad for you this week, or maybe research the dramatic increase in the “discovery” of various pharmaceutically-treatable mood disorders since the 1980s.)

A Very Brief History of the Mainstream

Now the whole idea of the “mainstream” and “normality” comes into being right around the same time as modern Capitalism, which is of course no mere coincidence. Until the middle of the 18th Century or so, there wasn’t any need for such concepts, which are essential components of social control under Capitalism, but which were unnecessary under Despotism, when monarchs and the church could torture and kill whoever they wanted, and so didn’t have to bother with manipulating the masses into worrying about whether they were “normal,” or adopting the values of the ruling classes, or believing they were “free.” (OK, granted, the church, and organized religion, generally, was kind of performing this function, but that was a very different, despotic ball of wax, which is why the whole “God” business starts to die out fairly quickly under modern Capitalism.)

In any event, by the end of “the Age of Revolution,” modern Capitalism had replaced Despotism as the dominant political-economic power structure throughout the Western world. This was actually a good thing, as Despotism was really no fun at all, unless you were an aristocrat, which most people weren’t. One of the ways Capitalism did that (i.e. freed us all from Despotism), was by doing away with any and all despotic values and replacing them with exchange value (i.e. the value of a thing, or idea, as determined by the market, rather than by the King or the Church). This was also a step forward, as no one enjoys having their values determined for them by despots and priests. At the same time, a significant number of people are also not so fond of having the value of every thing, every idea, and pretty much every other aspect of their lives, determined for them by the market. Which has made things somewhat challenging for Capitalism, in terms of its efforts to transform everything in sight into a commodity. The 20th Century was a particularly problematic period, as Capitalism had to deal with reactionary challenges from both the left and right (i.e. Fascism and fake Communism). Fortunately, however, history was on its side, and, by the late 1980s, modern Capitalism had done away with any serious threat to its global dominance and, well, here we are.

Now the capitalist mainstream has been neatly divided for us into “left” and “right” halves, which we are encouraged to freely choose between, which cynics will tell you is about as meaningful as choosing between Coca Cola and Pepsi, or Burger King and McDonalds, but it’s actually a little more interesting than that. We’ll cover the “right” half first, as the “left” half is a bit more complex, and we’ll also look at the “non-mainstream” margins of both, where all those “discontents” reside.

The Mainstream Right and Its Margins

The right half of the capitalist mainstream is comprised of the global capitalist avant-garde, also known as Neoliberalism, or Transnational Capitalism. This is the global network of transnational corporations, banks and other financial institutions, governments and quasi-governmental bodies, and extremely wealthy individuals that many people think of as the “one percent.” You know who these people and entities are.

Just to the right of the right half of the capitalist mainstream we encounter the reactionary (i.e. nostalgically despotic, or in some cases neo-fascist) opposition, who are attempting to preserve what is left of their “traditional values” and social structures, which the capitalist avant-garde is eradicating and replacing with its only operative value (i.e. exchange value). Without getting all Deleuze and Guattari on you, here’s how this works …

As global Capitalism continues to expand, destabilizing, debt-enslaving, regime changing, and otherwise restructuring whatever despotic territories remain resistant to its relentless efforts to impose “freedom” upon them and commodify everything, some of the people in those territories attempt to halt or turn back the march of progress, in order to preserve their “traditional” values. Examples of this include: Christian Fundamentalism and other neo-conservative or nationalist movements in the USA; various nationalist movements currently on the rise in Europe (e.g. FN, AfD, BNP, FPÖ, Golden Dawn); and of course Islamic Fundamentalism, and the various groups and individuals operating under its banner.

This reactionary (or “anti-capitalist”) sentiment is, in in large part, what has been fueling Donald Trump’s campaign … a sentiment never explored in any real depth (as that would deviate from the simplistic Trump = Hitler script) but strongly condemned by both the mainstream “left” and “right” at every opportunity. The challenge facing the GOP establishment now is to coopt this reactionary discontent with Capitalism and channel it into hatred of Clinton and her constituency, assuming they can get Trump to play ball with transnational Capitalism, and drop all the protectionist anti-trade nonsense.

The Mainstream Left and Its Margins

The left half of the capitalist mainstream is also comprised of the global capitalist avant-garde (i.e. the same the global network of transnational corporations, financial institutions, governments and quasi-governmental bodies, and wealthy individuals that make up that elite one percent). The only real difference between the left and right halves of the mainstream is on “social issues,” and both halves are fairly flexible when it comes to that stuff. Yes, the mainstream “right” has to pretend to oppose things like reproductive rights, LGBT rights, affirmative action, open immigration policy, and so on, just as the mainstream “left” has to pretend to serve the interest of the working classes and various minority groups, but both halves of the mainstream are committed, above all else, to preserving and advancing global Capitalism, which, let’s remember, is effectively transnational (or supranational) at this point, and is all about doing away with any kind of despotic social structures or personal values that get in the way of its ongoing efforts to privatize and commodify everything. (See NAFTA, TTIP, or other such bipartisan-supported “trade agreements,” or the workings of the World Bank, IMF, WTO, ECB, et al., or the “War on Terror,” for details on that.)

The Mainstream (or “liberal”) Left is often thought of as “reformist.” It isn’t. The Mainstream Left is not interested in reforming Capitalism at all, as it doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with it. Which is, of course, correct. Capitalism is working perfectly. There is absolutely nothing faulty or dysfunctional about it. Capitalism is doing exactly what it is designed to do — eliminating despotic social structures and values and replacing them with markets and exchange value — and it is doing this extremely well. Modern Capitalism has never been interested in democracy, fairness, equality, saving the planet (or whatever), other than as a means of rendering everything a commodity and trading it all at a profit. The Mainstream Left’s historical and ongoing struggles for equality and justice within the capitalist system, while undeniably necessary, laudable and progressive, have never been, are not now, a threat or a challenge to the capitalist system; on the contrary, they are part and parcel of Capitalism’s efforts to eradicate any despotic values (including racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on) that interfere with its operations and progress. Which, again — before you start composing that tweet calling me racist, or a sexist, or whatever — is a good thing, which I am for (i.e. these struggles the Mainstream Left is engaging in … because Despotism is no fun at all).

Now just as the Mainstream Right is flanked on its right by that reactionary (or “anti-Capitalist”) contingent, the Mainstream Left is flanked on its left by a radical (or “post-Capitalist”) contingent. Staring into the merciless jaws of a mindless and seemingly unassailable global capitalist machine that is relentlessly privatizing and debt-enslaving whatever segments of the planet it hasn’t already razed, poisoned or otherwise decimated to make a few bucks, the anti-capitalist right wants to go backward, whereas the post-capitalist left wants to go forward.

OK, of course it’s not that black and white, as there are elements of each on either side, as well as all kinds of other forces floating around out there on the margins, but bear with me for a moment, because I think I’m getting to my main point … which is about those discontented masses that the mainstream media and the rest of the plutocracy is working so hard to contain, divert, coopt and otherwise neutralize at the moment.

Both of these discontented contingents want out of Capitalism, at least in its current transnational form. And understandably so, as it’s all pretty much downhill from here, for most of us anyway, as the neoliberal “race to the bottom” continues. The difference is that the post-Capitalist left (which I’m obviously numbering myself among) doesn’t regard Capitalism as a mistake, and we recognize and appreciate it having freed us from the tyranny of the monarchies and the church and so on; we simply want to move forward toward some sort of social and economic system that maybe has an ounce of humanity, and humility, and wherein exchange value isn’t the only value that matters.

The Mainstream (let’s go ahead and capitalize it), unlike the two contingents we just covered, does not want out of Capitalism. The Mainstream, both left and right halves of it, wants Capitalism to go on ruling the world forever. Capitalism, like every other historical empire, wants history to end with its ascension to power. Having succeed in its revolution against the monarchies, it wants to ensure that there will be no further revolutions, ever, until the end of time. Which is why those contingents on the left and right must be continually ignored, dismissed, castigated and otherwise marginalized by the mainstream media, and occasionally, when necessary, subdued with brute force.

The Future

Now reactionary anti-Capitalism is never going to succeed. Ask the Nazis, or any other nationalists or neo-nationalists, how well they’ve done with that approach. Moreover, it’s not meant to succeed. It’s actually just a built-in part of the machinery of the system … how Capitalism keeps itself from completely imploding. Whenever the machine gets overheated, it generates this “fascist” reaction, which slows things down and allows Capitalism to reenact its founding mythology (i.e. defeating despotism and securing freedom and justice for all). Sometimes this cathartic ritual is conducted symbolically (as appears to be the case with the current US elections), but at other times it is also acted out with bombs, guns and so on. In any event, although global Capitalism has no problem accommodating despotically-run governments that play ball economically, the West is not going back to actual Despotism as an operative power structure … so forget about those VHandmaid’s Tale and 1984 scenarios. They’re not going to happen.

The good news is, post-Capitalism is going to succeed, someday … unless Capitalism manages to annihilate all human life on the planet first. Because nothing lasts forever, not even global empires, no matter how much their ruling elites want them to. The specific character of this post-Capitalist future is, at this stage, probably unimaginable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t on the way. Personally, I’m hoping for some version of Socialism, rather than, you know, some Mad Max-type scenario. Whether that next tectonic social-political transformation occurs, or begins, in our lifetimes is an open question, as is whether it comes about gradually or as the result of some global catastrophe.

In the meantime, we have this “Mainstream” problem. The question is, how do we “discontents” on the left continue to support the Mainstream Left’s struggles for equality and social justice within the capitalist system without getting sucked into the trap of, well, for example, supporting (or agreeing not to savagely criticize) mainstream liberal icons like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who are clearly servants of the neoliberal corporate elites that are destabilizing, privatizing, debt-enslaving, and otherwise pestiferously restructuring the entire planet?

While it’s relatively uncomplicated to align ourselves with the Mainstream Left when it comes to issues like blatant racism, sexism and other such forms of discrimination, or police brutality, mass incarceration, labor reforms, and so on, it gets a little more complicated at times like this, when the Mainstream Left expects (or demands) that everyone sidle up to the establishment table for another heaping serving of “hope and change,” or “love trumps hate,” or whatever happy horseshit they’re serving up this time. It gets especially tricky when the Mainstream Left starts insinuating (or just outright claiming) that anyone who dares to criticize their neoliberal puppet candidate is either a racist, a sexist, or an angry, uneducated, white trash Trump supporter. This kind of bullying and guilt-tripping is only going to intensify once Sanders concedes and it becomes a Clinton/Trump race. So, unless you’re planning on shutting up about Clinton and conforming to the mainstream script, get yourself a raincoat.

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C. J. Hopkins is an award-winning American playwright, novelist and satirist based in Berlin. His plays are published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) and Broadway Play Publishing (USA). His debut novel, ZONE 23, is published by Snoggsworthy, Swaine & Cormorant. He can reached at cjhopkins.com or  consentfactory.org.

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