The Capitalist Adults Are in the Room

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Commercials are the State of the Union

Two Sunday mornings ago, sitting in an apartment equipped with cable television, I happened upon a CNN broadcast called “State of the Union,” hosted by the perpetual scowler Jake Tapper.

I figured I’d better look at a show with such a solemn and important title.

The federal government had only been open for less than 48 hours after its record-setting five-week shutdown. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers were waiting for back pay after weeks of scrambling to meet basic expenses.

The FBI had just engaged in a high-profile military-style raid on the home of a top Donald Trump associate and adviser, Roger Stone.

Washington was leading an international effort to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela.

Meteorologists were predicting a record deep-freeze across the upper Midwest.

There was a lot going on in “the Union.” I decided to watch.

I caught a glance of Tapper’s frowning face as CNN moved into a long line of commercials, almost all of which were for pharmaceutical products catering to Baby Boomers. Drugs with strange-sounding three-syllable names and daunting side-effects including death.

I put the volume up and left the room to attend to wash some dishes.

“State of the Union” returned.  I could hear U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) telling Tapper that government shut-downs don’t provide Republicans “good leverage.”

Reflecting that Rubio was leading the charge for the imperialist shutdown of Venezuela’s democratic government, I worked my way back to the television.  Too late. CNN was already back to commercials: cars, drugs, and retirement planning. One advertisement blared a perverse, up-tempo version of one part (repeating the lyric section “what’s my name”?) of the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil” while a vehicle careened around the screen.

I had some laundry to put away. The show came back.  I could make out Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro telling Tapper that a completed Trump-style wall on the US-Mexico border would “change the notion of America from the Statue of Liberty that stands for freedom and welcomes immigrant to a country that literally walls itself off from the rest of the world.”

I was intrigued when Tapper pointed out that more than 650 miles of the 900 mile plus-border was already covered with a physical barrier and so adding 300 or so more miles might not make that much difference.  But by the time I got back to hear Castro’s response, it was too late. CNN was into another long commercial break: a dating service for “educated people,” a vacation cruise company, a foreign language app, car insurance, life insurance, a drug for migraines.

“So much for that, guess I’m going to miss the ‘State of the Union,’ I muttered to myself.  I flipped the clicker to obscure cable channel showing a live soccer match from somewhere in Germany. (One of the many beautiful things about soccer – the real football – is that goes twice for a full 45 minutes straight without commercial interruption, with a halftime in-between.

It’s a big deal and all part of the story of, well, “the state of the union.”

Then it hit me. It struck me – with no particular claim to originality – that the endless and nauseating commercials weren’t just getting in the way of my appreciation of “the state of the union.” They were and are the state of the union.  Hyper-commercialization is the state of the union.

The ultra-capitalist United States is all about the commercialization and commodification – the extraction, manipulation, distortion, packaging, and sale – of anything and everything capital can get its hands on and turn to its advantage. Pick a critical, social, natural, and cultural resource and phenomenon. Take one, any one – education, water, forests, transportation, art, music, communications, health care, old age, insurance, pensions, the land, the food supply, food preparation, home materials, clothing, body care, civil authority, the maintenance of facilities, energy, housing, the public roads, spirituality, zoning, romantic relationships, sex, friendship, traffic control, recreation, entertainment, public debate, language, and science.  All this and more is for sale, subject to relentless, totalitarian commodification and commercialization under the command of concentrated capital. There are corporate-marketed products and services powerfully and pervasively connected to all these things and more.

Still an Age of Capital: The Limits of Commoner Participation

To keep “life” and society this way, the nation’s co-joined corporate media and political systems both function to service the bankrollers who sponsor their broadcasts, cultural productions, parties, elections, and candidates and the “public” office-holders, who make their real money in the private sector after doing capital’s bidding while in government.

Actual public opinion on numerous key issues is largely irrelevant under this hegemonic formula.  Most U.S.-Americans want and have long wanted the basic progressive and social-democratic agenda advanced by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: guaranteed free and quality and health care for all; a drastically increased minimum wage; a significant reduction of the nation’s extreme economic inequalities; free college tuition; the removal of private money from public elections; large-scale green jobs programs to simultaneously provide decent employment and help avert environmental catastrophe; massive investment in public schools and housing, and more.  Most U.S.-Americans would go beyond Sanders and agree to drastic reductions in the U.S. Pentagon budget to help (along with increased taxes on the preposterously wealthy and under-taxed Few) pay for these and other good things. Most U.S.-Americans think public opinion ought to influence policy every day, not just on those occasional and brief, savagely time-staggered moments when “we the people” supposedly get meaningful popular and democratic “input” by marking ballots filled with the names of major party candidates who have generally been pre-approved by the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money.

But so what? The commoners don’t call the shots under capitalism.  They never have and they never will. Not under the bourgeois system of class rule. As the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in the introduction to his magisterial volume, The Age of Capital, “the global triumph of capitalism” meant “the triumph of a society” based on “buying everything including labor) in the cheapest market and selling the dearest.” It was (and remains) a society where “participation in politics [on the part] of the common people” takes place only “within such limits as would guarantee the bourgeois social order and avoid the risk of its overthrow.”

Election Fairy Fever

And so it goes that cable news networks run a regular parade of capital-controlled politicos, “experts,” and talking heads who come on the corporate-managed “public” airwaves to obsessively focus us on those holy little voting moments once every two or four years. It’s two years out from the next scheduled presidential Inauguration and CNN and MSNBC are already running with the 2020 presidential candidate circus, making sure to keep the commoners fixated on that future grand spectacle even as a present-day monster – Donald Trump – edges the nation and world closer to cultural and climatological closure with every single minute he stains the world’s most powerful office with his putrid and pathological presence.  No rational, engaged, empowered, and democratic citizenry would tolerate this eco-cidal, racist, and sexist ogre’s holding of that penultimate position for a single day.  Such a citizenry would be in a state of massive rebellion until not just the orange brute himself but indeed the broader political class and corporate state that birthed and sustained it was replaced by something consistent with the principle of popular sovereignty.

The corporate communications and ideological system is dedicated to keeping ordinary folks dreaming of an electoral savior from on high – a more properly corporate- and empire-vetted ruler, a good wizard or fairy to magically slay the tangerine mobster and make everything seem good and “normal” and safe again. Someone who will sound progressive and even a little populist to get elected but will then govern in accord with the big corporate and financial interests who will fund his or her campaign and then make him or her privately rich after he or she provides the masters of capital – those who George Carlin rightly called our “owners” – with one or two years of “public service.”

“How Flawed Must the System be to Allow Something Like This to Happen?”

This system loves Trump for reasons both commercial, political, and ideological. Besides granting the upper-echelon welcome tax-cuts and regulatory roll-backs, he is the perfect foil for the ruling class’s project of keeping what they see as the real threat – radical-democratic structural and institutional change – off the table. Here is an exchange I recently had with the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas, with whom I have been conversing across 90 miles of absurdly frozen Illinois soil:

Street:  I’m not the biggest Bill Maher fan but this segment Maher did on Trump’s narcissist insanity last September was brilliant and dead-on.  Screaming textbook Narcissistic Personality Disorder has been on wild display.  Trump was perhaps the nation’s leading textbook example of malignant narcissism well before he became a serious presidential contender. It is just mind-boggling that someone as incredibly mentally and emotionally incompetent and ill could hold the most powerful position in the world for two years and running. Think about that. It is unreal.

I liked this line in the Maher bit: “Now, I know everyone by now knows Trump is a narcissist. But we have to stop treating that like it’s an unfortunate personality tic and start treating it like what it is: a serious and dangerous mental illness.” I’ve thought this from the very start. I mean, it has just blown me away that people think his narcissism is funny, authentic, and even “cute.” Only in a nation that is shockingly illiterate when it comes to basic matters of mental health (and the U.S. is pretty much a nuthouse) could ever tolerate such a person in the White House. If the 25th Amendment wasn’t written for this guy, then who the Hell (other than a formerly competent president hit by a stroke or a bullet or whatever debilitating condition or injury) was it written for? It’s NOT funny.  It’s NOT cute.  This guy is NOT amusing. He’s sick and dangerous.

Thomas: You got that right. But I still have difficulty intellectually digesting the fact that this is the way educated and presumably sane humans talk about the most powerful guy on the planet. And 35 to 40 percent of the electorate supports this lunatic. I sit and watch this shit every night and find myself just shaking my head in disbelief and often horrified. This fiasco also allows the inauthentic opposition to sit around and smugly refer to themselves as “the adults in the room,” as if that’s now all that’s required. No need for Bernie or whatever or radical change, just need someone who is not mentally ill, an “adult in the room.” Truly perilous times.

Street: Yeah. I think its “Pied Piper II” now…they want to keep this guy around to run again like they wanted to run against him in 2016….only just in the next election this orange monstrosity, this epic ignoramus, this classic malignant narcissist will have been the president for damn near 4 years.  Unreal.

Thomas: And here’s the kicker: the Dems now sit around and act like we’ve got this covered because we’re sane and Dumpster’s not, our point has been proven, so now just give us power again, and we’ll put everything back together, nothing more needed. But the truth is glaringly obvious: how flawed and fundamentally dysfunctional must the system be to allow something like this to happen? No need for radical change, just put the adults back in? Please don’t insult our intelligence. The adults were in the room — by their estimation Obama was the epitome of adulthood — and it produced this.

Street: Yeah. And guess what, as time goes on. we might well find that we dodged a bullet with the Trumpsterfire. He’s a showman, not a real strongman. He’s a strongman wannabe, know what I’m say’n?. See what Rock Right Wing is Cooking after one or two terms of a “progressive neoliberal” (Nancy Fraser) Kamala Harris or Beto or Biden (really? no) presidency.

And so it goes – the endlessly recycled absurdity of a hopelessly commercialized media-politics culture dedicated to constant buying and selling and the containment of popular sentiments and behavior “within such limits as guarantee the bourgeois social order and avoid the risk of its overthrow.”

Postscript: The Not-So Super Bowl

The bad call that probably cost the New Orleans Saints a trip to the Super Bowl? Yeah, it was bad, but that’s the breaks. Worse in my opinion was the Kansas City Chiefs not even having a chance to answer a New England Patriots opening touchdown drive with a touchdown drive of their own under the overtime rules in the AFC championship game. That’s ridiculous.. A coin flip should not mean that much for an overtime period. (I say this despite hating the racism of the KC Chiefs team name, logo, and chant).

But far worse than both of those things are (1) the pathetic lack of Black head coaches (there’s 3) in a league whose players are 77% Black; (2) the racist NFL crackdown on the anti-police-brutality protests undertaken by Black players in earlier years; (3) the NFL owners’ racist blacklisting of protest leader Colin Kaepernick; (4) the sick nationalist-imperial militarism on display during NFL contests including of course the Super Bowl; (5) the vast stadium corporate welfare (tax breaks and subsidies)NFL owners receive from local and state governments and taxpayers; (6) the extreme damage done by the barbarian sport of football to its players brains– horrible damage that has been documented in numerous scientific studies that the NFL has long downplayed and suppressed;; (7) the tragic ascendancy (dating from at least the 1970s) of sick-ass US football over the beautiful game of baseball as the nation’s favorite sport; (8) savage football’s greater popularity than the beautiful and glorious game of basketball; Oh, and (9) the orgy of ruling-class conspicuous consumption that is the rolling, week-long Super Bowl party in the city where it is held….the sick influx of private corporate jets and the millionaires and billionaires who strut around while billions of their fellow human being live on less than $2 a day; (10) the orgy of environmentally and spiritually deadly mass- consumerism that is encouraged by a sporting event that has become as well known for its television commercials as for the game itself.

“Don’t forget,” Schatze Mayer: wrote me, “the spike in sex trafficking during the Super Bowl week.”

Another one: Super Bowl Sunday leads the nation for domestic violence calls most years.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).