Mainstream 101: Supporting Imperialism, Suppressing Socialism

In Cormac McCarthy’s consummate work of apocalyptic dread The Road, about a perished world, the narrator dreams of life with his former bride, a mere memory come to haunt his cold nights. Yet rather than embrace such crepuscular balms, he finds them suspicious. “He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of langour and of death.”

I imagine this is how neoliberals think about socialism. As a call of langour and death. Fearful of being gulled by fantasies, they resist idealistic barnstormers with the same intensity with which they reject base fascists. There must be some deep inbuilt bias against reachable idealism in some, and against unpleasant truths in others. But the latter seem more numbersome. And yet so much of the world we inhabit, in all its gray capitalist drudgery, in all its gaudy pomp, its tatty circumstance, its bricolage culture, is a product of our acquiescence. The notion of the unreachable distance of the ideal may represent more a failure of collective imagination than a material impediment. How many of us are convinced that there is no alternative to capitalism? How many have ingested that neoliberal narcotic of foreclosed imaginations?

Then, as a nation of small minds, we accept the tutelage of small men. We acquiesce to the dimmed horizons of candidates like Former Vice President Joe Biden, whose cheaply bought lunchpail posturing is a transparent farce to anyone with a passing knowledge of his record. His like is a metastasizing presence on a crowded campaign trail. The elder Biden is flanked by moderate Republican Beto O’Rourke, doing his best to be Obama-lite, a young, idealistic avatar of hope, full of windy platitudes and a believer’s mien; Elizabeth Warren, whose latest brainstorm is to make the violent hegemonic armed forces more environmentally friendly, a kind of last consolation on the downslope to extinction; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose cheery multiculturalism faintly veils a familiar and spineless centrism; self-absorbed Kathleen Harris, who giggles at jailing truants; and friend-of-the-people, friend-of-Pharma, Cory Booker. Yet the half of the electorate that remains engaged in the roiling fraud of elections quickly fall to debating the manifold vices and minor virtues of these candidates, petitioners all for the role of caretaker of the public weal.

And all of this, this wan acceptance, this it-is-what-it-is-ism, this dread of dreams, is itself a product of media conditioning. I think it was Deepak Chopra, of all people, who said the dream of social conditioning is only escaped by sages and psychotics. Which is why if media is the culprit of our condition, then capturing media should be the letter of transit to a social consciousness of a different kind. After all, the February revolution in Russia unseated the tsar but put the bourgeoisie in its place, who happily went about shedding what radical garb they transiently wore. The Bolsheviks understood this wasn’t enough and, rather than try to stage a new rebellion on the heels of that one, instead went into the countryside to convince the workers and peasants that February wasn’t enough. Only then did October come.

But to take stock of the present situation (or ‘Current Affairs’, as Barnes & Noble would so blandly have it) is an exercise in incredulity. Looking about oneself, the media landscape is littered with one garbage heap after another, filth factories that sunnily prostitute themselves to power, the doxies of journalism nearly blotting out the horizon.

Sycophant NGOs

One of the crucial aspects of media propaganda is the use of apparently authoritative sources. This is done in a couple of ways. One is to establish new organizations that parade themselves beneath a banner of impartiality but do the work of elite capital. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, PropOrNot, and the Alliance for Securing Democracy and its infamous “Hamilton 68” dashboard supposedly designed to identify Russian bots on social media. The National Endowment for Democracy, created in the Reagan era, is perhaps a seminal example of the creation of front organizations that profess neutral and angelic intentions while in actuality work to savage the reputation of progressive movements, domestically and internationally.

Perhaps an even better way to deliver ostensibly authoritative news to the population is by co-opting existing organizations. This has been effectively done across a range of international institutions. Think of the Bretton Woods institutions of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank (originating out of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), etc. All have more or less been captured by Washington’s neoliberal zealotry. Think of Congress, for that matter. But for matters of imperial aggression, few organizations are better situated to sway public opinion than longstanding NGOs, which has in recent years fallen afoul of American subversion. Once compromised, their findings can be usefully employed by the MSM to solidify arguments in favor of imperial violence, crucially under the guise of humanitarian goodwill.

Take for instance Amnesty International. Once and still perceived, to some extent, as a kind of pillar of rectitude in a boozy, braindead consumer culture, that NGO has made itself supplicant to Washington, and was perhaps always anxious to evade the censure of the metropole. It now openly campaigns for war. Of course, it varies the lexicon slightly, using terms like “grave” to preface perceived injustices and peppers in suggestive terms like “crimes against humanity” to stir the juices of the settled intelligentsia, those miseducated haute bourgeois that think they know better than the working class, despite being sheltered from most of the damage done by neoliberalism. Once there’s a generalized panic afoot about how to put somebody else’s house in order, Amnesty rolls out the heavy artillery: this “must not go unpunished” and that surely requires a “vigorous response”. Words like “probably” and “almost certainly” are sprinkled into the mix to provide an impression of veracity. This is how imperial violence happens. It is justified before a boot ever settles on the soft earth of an “emerging” nation (never to emerge precisely because of that folderol from the respectable press).

Human Rights Watch, another turncoat org, is led by a kind of frail, blue-veined Savonarola in Executive Director Kenneth Roth. Taking to Twitter, Roth rampages across the media plain on a high horse of pious cant, denouncing Nicolas Maduro as a vicious dictator and supporting the overthrow of the government by a ferociously stupid cabal of neoliberals backed by American power. Another warmonger, Roth. He is in good company. Inverting reality for its bylines, Atlantic writers call the violent opposition of parliamentarian Juan Guaido “pro-democracy.” The Wall Street Journal calls them, “democratic forces.” Despite Maduro’s standing as the elected leader of Venezuela, government forces are often referred to as, ‘forces loyal to Maduro.’ Democracy is canceled when it contravenes imperial capitalism. Always.

The now growing animus toward Iran, a nation that hasn’t started a war in centuries, has been long reinforced by biased reportage from around the MSM. It is always anonymous sources from the U.S. military or from its sprawling corrupt bureaucracy that peddle the state line to credulous young reporters (and older disillusioned reporters) from the Times, perhaps guttural utterances whispered in a shadowy oilslick parking garage. A Fair survey of media coverage on Venezuela found that 54 of 76 articles were openly in favor of regime change, while the rest either provided a raft of ambiguous banalities while being careful not to oppose the machinations of the garrison state.

Drubbing the Idealists

If the media is actively supporting imperialism internationally, it must fight a companion war on the homefront. Namely, the defeat of progressive movements that call for policies that would threaten the imperial treasury. Programs like Medicare for All, easily within reach of a nation that wanted it and whose government represented the populace, is considered wildly idealistic and unworkable in the mainstream press, which has conditioned an essential slice of the voting population. In reality, such proposals are banal. The argument over single-payer has been settled in saner circles. But in the fantasyland of the mainstream, it is a sensational concept, hamstrung by a leftist idealism detached from the reality of elitism. Hence the blizzard of dismissive prose.

It’s chief proponent, Vermont “independent” Senator Bernie Sanders, is being quietly shaped as anti-American for the upcoming election: a delusive scold who clings to the rhetorical tropes of New Dealers and Anti-Vietnam protestors, having been bypassed by the enlightened wisdom of imperial humanitarianism. His press coverage will not amount to half of Joe Biden’s or Beto O’Rourke’s. He will be calmly buried in the media, and then sundered by the sword of his own fealty to neoliberal Democrats. Sanders will doubtless receive more coverage this election, largely because in the last he had little name recognition and was easily ignored by the corporate media. Now that he’s a household name, it must cover him to maintain its semblance of neutrality. That coverage, though, will be decidedly negative and deceitful, attacking his socialist-lite programs and absurdly questioning his ability to rally support among his strongest cohorts.

Even before he declared for the presidency, Biden was scoring major media coverage, nearly besting Sanders, who was crisscrossing the country at seemingly breakneck pace. Biden seems to have already been anointed as the chosen foot soldier to shepherd imperialism back beneath its tawdry banner of ‘respectability’. His nascent campaign has already aligned itself with the imperial state. Like Hillary Clinton before him, Biden was a proponent of regime change war in Iraq and an architect of a crime bill that laid yet more punitive measures on disenfranchised African-Americans. His efforts to destabilize Ukraine on behalf of western capital should not be forgotten either, not to mention Syria and Honduras and other lamentable projects he enthusiastically cheered on. Prior to being VP during the halcyon days of neoliberal icon Barack Obama’s administration, Biden was considered to be a rhetorical loose cannon, a faithful servant of capital who tried to clothe himself in the blue-collar swagger of the working man. His collective profile was more Pagliacci than paladin. It remains to be seen whether the corporate media will be able to craft a suitably presidential persona for this graft-happy grifter. One image prevails in your author’s mind, served up no doubt in one of the MSM’s countless insider paeans to the Obama administration. It is the image of Biden marching around the White House, a crazed grin on his face, the starry-eyed face of a witless acolyte, telling himself again and again that General Motors was alive and bin Laden was dead. As if this bizarre polarity was all the proof the ersatz Delaware senator needed to know that Obama had resurrected American exceptionalism. And perhaps it was.

Narrative Rollback and a Culture of Death

Mainstream America, indifferent to art, enthralled by money, ignorant of history, is the outgrowth of a triptych of vile powers: the neoliberal party, the imperial state, and the capitalist media. Each of these entities has vested interests in advancing the cause of violent western hegemony. It is the media, though, and the control of media, that casts the patina of legitimacy on the party and state which enable it to act with relative impunity. To reinforce the false historical narrative and reign in the increasingly rogue cabal of soothsayers roaming the ridges of the web, a vast social media crackdown and pitiless prosecution of whistleblowers has doubtless had a chilling effect on alternative news sources. Their visibility has been and will be dramatically diminished, and the almost unimaginable courage and risk-taking of people like Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning to out state crimes will be sorely tested by the limitless power of the Espionage Act. As alternative forms of fact-finding are rolled back, the mainstream narratives will again assume an authority they neither have nor deserve. All of this is, typically, nothing new. The story of Eugene Debs is a reminder of the wantonness of state power, the Wilson-led entry into the First World War of the power of the state to shape public opinion. As austerity and inflation bites deeper into our quality of life, the government will becoming increasingly fascist and reactionary, as our deranged Commander in Chief reminds us daily.

The bourgeois intellectual culture we live beneath is ethically and spiritually bankrupt. It can rationalize away any and all cruelties in the name of “democracy”. The imparting of false crimes to foreign states and the savaging of domestic proposals for social uplift are the least of it. The latest international targets include Venezuela and Nicaragua, of course. But these embargoes and sanctions and cheaply rationalized crimes can be traced nearly word-for-word to the Eighties, when the National Review and Wall Street Journal, among many others, were sniffing about exporting democracy to wayward Latin nations and quite openly countenancing huge civilian casualties if the result was democracy. This was when Hollywood B-lister Ronald Reagan was hyperventilating about Communism and declared Nicaragua an ‘extraordinary’ threat to the United States, instancing the contra wars. Barack Obama resuscitated this halfwit measure when he targeted Venezuela during his second term, calling it, too, an ‘extraordinary’ threat to national security. Donald Trump has resurrected a sociopathic Reagan foot soldier in Elliot Abrams to manage the latest regime change efforts in the Southern hemisphere. All in the name of ‘democracy’, a word flung about the mediascape amid pithy emotional outbursts, as pundits declare themselves terribly worried about the wellbeing of Latinos thousands of miles away, though of another class, of another tongue, and another reviled political disposition.

Hiding in Plain Print

Yet the corporate use of the word democracy has no relation to the word’s philosophical definition. It is merely a portmanteau for all manner of plunder, the techniques of which include first evicting the wayward socialist in power, by sanction or sabotage or shotgun, then implanting a pliable stooge in power, implementing economic austerity, and selling off state-owned assets (held in the name of the people) to U.S. multinationals. Meanwhile the population stews in a cauldron of social and economic chaos. The pundits then clamor to administer more of the same, calling it a cure, but knowing it isn’t.

The wreckage entrained by this turn of events is nearly wholly hidden by the corporate press. But the events occur nonetheless. The ‘pliable stooges’ are referred to in Communist lore as ‘comprador elite’. Effectively, Washington buys off an elitist in the target country–there are always plenty, most of them educated in some American re-education camp disguised as an Ivy League Elysium–and supplies him or her with a prefabricated policy playbook drawn up inside the beltway by congeries of Chicago School fantasists. Then our obtuse organs of capitalist oligarchy will provide military aid in the form of weapons and training that will almost certainly be necessary to put down the social unrest caused by the austerity policies. Austerity means slashing social spending, which depletes economic demand, which shrinks the economy, which causes international lenders (read Washington-directed banks) to step in, wringing their hands in brotherly concern for their Latin lessers, and hold out a dollar-based loan package stippled with conditionalities.

These conditions include budget caps, the violation of which will trigger punitive measures, and the dropping of tariff regimes that protect domestic industry in favor of “FDI” or Foreign Direct Investment, a pseudo-economic term for a firesale of national resources at deep discounts to foreign corporations. This is also referred to as ‘privatization’ which is said to be necessary in order to raise funds for the government to pay back the onerous loan, which was naturally signed off on by the comprador elite in charge, a traitor who betrays his own population, impoverishes them, and fences their own wealth for what amounts to a transaction fee, which he then pockets before absconding to foreign climes. (Think of the Shah of Iran being granted admission to the United States for medical treatment after being chased from the country by the revolution). This makes the loan odious as well as onerous, but this is disregarded by the debt collectors.

Additional costs come in the form of ‘externalities’, the second best trick of capitalist exploitation. The first is when capital captures the surplus value from labor (which means you will never be paid your true worth in a capitalist system). The second is when capital socializes the steep costs of production. Here the costs often materialize in the form of ecological depredations, as when corporations strip mine mountaintops (see West Virginia or Jharkhand, India, where slag and sulfur wreck native habitats). These actions often proceed protected by the infamous ‘MOU’ or Memorandum of Understanding that permits domestic and foreign corporations to mine under the aegis of the federal state. Yet how much of this is shared in the tepid correspondence between the monolithic institutions of corporate media and their million minor outlets?

Coda to Media Crimes

McCarthy’s The Road delivers a far bleaker picture than the one just described, but it articulates and anticipates a possible outcome of our puerile system of social organization. A system which decimates our land, disfigures our psyches, deforms our bodies, and desiccates our dreams on behalf of a chiseling syndicate of elites. Elites who appear to neither know nor feel compassion except for their blood relations, which are presently being primed to assume the mantle of exploitation once decrepitude descends on their vile forbearers. All the more reason to uproot corporate media and begin the mind work of calling a population back to its truer instincts, where peaceful cooperation trumps cutthroat competition. Those instincts are currently papered over by a phalange of specious argument, emotional manipulation, and the bludgeon of perpetual news. The elites that helm this system of deceits were recently sharing new world order ideas over champagne and canapes in Switzerland at their annual Bilderberg summit, breathlessly sketching their latest vision for the planet, one we will neither see nor vote on until it is visibly underway.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at