MSDNC, Single Payer, and the Serenity Prayer

Photograph Source: Donna Smith/NESRI – CC BY 2.0

As any sentient progressive should know, NBC and MSNBC (hereafter “MSDNC”) are media assets owned by and subservient to the United States capitalist and imperialist ruling class. Last Wednesday night during MSDNC’s opening Democratic presidential candidate debate, NBC’s nightly news anchor Lester Holt asked ten White House contenders about the popular social-democratic proposal to grant every living U.S. citizen health insurance as a basic human right through Medicare for All (hereafter “M4A” and “Single-Payer”). The policy is now supported by seventy percent (you read that correctly) of the U.S. population.

“Look at Business Model of an Insurance Company”

Listen to how Holt framed his question: “Many people watching at home have health insurance coverage through their employer. Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan? Just a show of hands, please.” (Two of the ten candidates on the stage, Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio, put up their hands.)

Notice anything? For Holt, the question was about loss and abolition, not gain and emancipation. Thanks to the central role of parasitic corporate surplus-extraction (including above all insurance company return) in the American system, the United States has the most expensive care in the industrialized world even while its health outcomes lag far behind those of other rich nations. But there was nothing in the anchorman’s issue-framing about how flawed and expensive U.S. for profit private health insurance (employment-based and otherwise) is.

While Holt’s phrase “government-run health plan” raised the specter (much dreaded in the American political tradition) of Big Government, there was nothing in his framing about the totalitarianism of the big insurance and drug companies, who gouge everyday Americans with exorbitant premiums and co-pays under a cruel corporate regime that delivers poor results.

There was nothing in Holt’s framing about the authoritarianism of employment-based health care: working people put not just their jobs but their health coverage and often their families’ coverage at risk if they say or do anything their bosses dislike.

There was nothing in Holt’s question about how a “government-run plan” would bring health care costs dramatically down while delivering superior outcomes. There was nothing about how M4A would be a great democratic victory for the people or about how the de-commodification of health insurance helps produce healthier, happier, and freer people in other countries.

Kudos, I guess, to Warren, for saying what everybody with seven functioning gray cells knows to be true:

“I spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke. And one of the number-one reasons is the cost of health care, medical bills. And that’s not just for people who don’t have insurance. It’s for people who have insurance….Look at the business model of an insurance company. It’s to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care. That leaves families with rising premiums, rising copays, and fighting with insurance companies to try to get the health care that their doctors say that they and their children need. Medicare for all solves that problem.”

Charles Sykes: How to Undermine Majority Progressive Opinion

Then came the morning-after. Over a breakfast of organic oatmeal and apple (eaten in the hope of keeping the for-profit medical-industrial-complex at bay for another six-month check-up), I heard MSDNC morning host Stephanie Ruhle (herself a multi-millionaire and former leading global derivatives trader who calls Wall Street her “favorite place in the world”), bring on the deeply conservative MSDNC commentator Charles Sykes to declare that the “winner” of Wednesday’s debate “was Donald Trump.” How so? Because the Democratic field (which didn’t even include Bernie Sanders on the first night) had “tilted so far left” that it gave the Republicans talking points to use in decrying on the horrors of the Democratic Party’s supposed radical “socialism.”

Never mind that most of the American population desperately needs and wants M4A. Never mind that the for-profit medical-industrial-complex is helping bleed the nation and its working-class majority dry in a nation where life expectancy has been declining for the last few years. Never mind that just 2 of the 10 candidates on the MSDNC stage Wednesday night raised their hands in response to Holt’s slanted query.

The loathsome Sykes said something else Thursday morning. He told Ruhle that M4A does well in opinion surveys “until you tell people that they’ll lose their private plans.” Interesting: if Sykes is correct, one can undermine popular support for Single-Payer by raising the specter of lost existing plans.

Gee, notice anything? That’s precisely how Holt framed the policy debate for millions of MSDNC viewers on Wednesday night. That’s Holt working for the bourgeoisie, which invests heavily in super-profitable insurance and drug companies that spend millions on commercials broadcast on NBC and MSDNC.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that public support for M4A would stay high in surveys that told participants about how Single-Payer reduces costs by taking out private insurance company profits (and “administrative expenses”) and how Single-Payer would free working people from cringing dependence on their bosses for individual and family health insurance.

Selling Demobilization

Meanwhile, MSDNC is selling more than just private health insurance. It’s also marketing the whole “quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky’s phrase) itself.

Every single day now in the “time of the orange pig” (if I might quote myself), I hear, view, or read of an outrage – migrant concentration camps on the southern border, the burying of federal research findings on the climate crisis, a near-war on Iran and so on (the list feels endless) – that would put any decent democratic citizenry in the streets by the millions. Much of why such long- overdue mass civil disobedience is not happening is how MSDNC and the rest of the corporate media-politics consent manufactory have sold the nation on a painfully constricted definition of democratic “politics” as little more than people going into voting booths to poke holes or make marks next to candidate names for 2 minutes once every 2/4/6 years. Notice how dominant media has passed the broadcast-time baton from RussiaGate to the next candidate-centered major party election spectacle. The mission is clear: turn the citizenry into a hideously time-staggered, savagely demobilized, and corporate-managed electorate. Keep it trained to function like a mass of atomized mice scampering through a giant maze that features a 2-minute detour into a little fake-cheese voting booth once every 1,460 days.

We get to vote – huzzah! Super! Formidable! Guess what? The unelected dictatorship of concentrated wealth reigns nonetheless in the United States, where, as the latest and best political science shows, “government policy…reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”

We can add “corporate-media-vetted.” The presidential contenders’ gauntlet includes confrontation with ruling-class gate-keepers like Rachel Maddow and Lester Holt. These money-vetted talking heads sit God-like in “moderator” positions to ask candidates who might serve the popular will whether they really want to replace the glorious private health insurance that corporations have so benevolently granted grateful workers and citizens with an evil Stalinist bureaucracy from Hell.

“The World the Neoliberals Have Created”

It isn’t just the once-ever-1460-day “Election Madness” (as the great radical historian Howard Zinn once called the American electoral obsession) that keeps so many U.S.-Americans acquiescent and demobilized as one creeping fascist and Ecocidal atrocity after another unfolds before our very eyes. It’s whole sick neoliberal order itself. As the left historian and journalist Terry Thomas recently wrote:

“In the world the neoliberals have created, or at least that corner of it that I reside in, people are so consumed by just getting by, by figuring out ways of making things work when there’s no plausible reason why they should, that they are simply too exhausted and numbed to spend a lot of time contemplating the moralities of big issues or even external things. This is an economy and society that encourage people to look inward, to isolate themselves as they fight against the forces that blow them all over the place, no sense of individual control. They come home, brain dead, and sit in front of a television that blares messages that individuality and personal identity are expressed in terms of what kind of car you have or medications you take, instill fears you are sick or stink and need deodorant before your neighbors will talk to you. None of this is an excuse, and when pressed people express some pretty radical ideas, but the exigencies of their lives make it difficult to express those ideas and inclinations in meaningful ways. Neoliberalism has been a resounding success, not only in making the 1% fabulously wealthy. It has succeeded in convincing people to buy into the system…by default.”

Things We Can Change

Look inward, indeed. I cannot recall how many times I have heard friends and acquaintances cite the recovery movement’s well-known Serenity Prayer in the context of explaining why it is dysfunctional to try to resist the endless and ultimately eco-exterminist ravages of capitalism:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is.
not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will;
so that I may be reasonable happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Leaving aside the afterlife matter (which I can can’t help but find eternally problematic), I understand the critically transformative and therapeutic value of this prayer at the individual level and particularly in the context of recovery from addictions of all kinds. But when it is applied to contemporary politics and society it is dangerous, for used that way it grants God-like power to Capital, which is one Hell of a non-benevolent overlord. If you put the contemporary class-rule system of capitalism into the category of “things we cannot change,” you are ultimately consigning your species to extinction.

Thomas explains something very well: “The key is understanding the difference between what can and can’t be changed. Being an addict is part of an individual’s reality and can’t be changed, so one’s abstinence is an ongoing daily confrontation with surrender and acceptance. The eco-exterminist ravages of capitalism on the other hand can be changed, so we need the courage (to use prayer’s language) to change.”

Society can in fact be changed. Alone, of course, we can do little. Together with others, the odds shift.

Postscript: Cory Booker Catches Up to a Big Problem

Special debate-night kudos to Cory Booker, who observed during Wednesday night’s MSDNC debate that “dignity is being stripped from labor” in the United States. “Maybe,” the left writer and photographer Craig Gordon quipped, “Booker should tell his Wall Street sugar daddies to stop doing that to labor.”

Someone should really look into the problem that Booker has discovered, starting perhaps with the ruminations of a pair of young German thinkers in 1848:

“In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases…”

“Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.

“…No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer, so far, at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.”

Might we include United Health Group (with a market value of $112.7 Billion), Anthem ($41B), Aetna ($38B), Cigna ($34B), Humana ($27.2B), Centene ($8.6B) among the “etc.” in Marx and Engels’formulation one hundred and seventy-one years later?

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