Skull of Death: Mass Media, Inauthentic Opposition, and Eco-Existential Reality in a Pre-Fascist Age of Appeasement

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Alongside and consistent with other privilege- and power-serving missions, so-called mainstream corporate media’s role is to keep the populace focused as best it can on relatively trivial matters and diverted from the most urgent topics of our time.

Kamala Harris Wants to Kill Your Health Insurance

Two Sundays ago, in a fit of masochistic media research, I watched some cable news talking heads do their weekly news roundups. CNN had a panel of know-it-all neoliberals who reflected on the Democratic Party’s first two presidential debates. Everyone agreed that Kamala Harris had been the big winner but had erred badly by embracing “the abolition of private health insurance.”

That’s how CNN’s “expert commentators” describe Medicare for All – not as high quality and low-cost health care as a human right with great direct and collateral benefits resulting from the eviction of corporate profit from coverage. Not as a great potential social and human rights victory, but as destruction: the “abolition” of (unmentionably parasitic, classist, exclusionary, inferior, and expensive, for-profit) health insurance.

Not that Senator Harris would seriously fight for Single Payer. She wouldn’t. She’s a corporate Democrat.

But I digress.

The chattering CNN craniums shifted to the United States Women’s World Cup soccer team that was triumphing in Paris. The panelists applauded the team’s star, Megan Rapione, a lesbian who refuses to visit the Donald Trump White House. (Good for her, but why not visit and spit in the Malignant One’s eye?).

Joy Reid Blames Russia for Anti-Kamala Birtherism

Over on the openly partisan-Democratic cable network MSNBC (hereafter “MSDNC”), morning host Joy Reid was going off about the Huxwellian idiocy of Donald Trump’s DMZ handshake with Kim Jong-Un and the strange kind of love Trump has for the North Korean dictator and other authoritarian heads-of-state. As usual with MSDNC, it was hard to detect the line separating the network’s proper criticism of Trump from its deep investment in U.S. imperialism.

Consistent with the investment, Reid turned to the noxious racist vulgarity of online rightists who claim that Kamala Harris isn’t a “real African-American.” Reid showed viewers a copy of the Mueller Report and claimed without a hint of proof that the neo-Birther Internet campaign against Harris was directed by the Russians? Her evidence? The Mueller Report, completed prior to the Harris smear.

“A Screaming Heat Skull of Death”

I don’t mean to suggest that any of these topics (except for Reid’s creepy Russia claim) are irrelevant and un-newsworthy. Still, everything I saw discussed during my sampling of “liberal” cable news stations’ Sunday morning fare was minor compared to what should have been the biggest story of all from the week under consideration. The news in question touched on Paris, but it wasn’t about football. As Business Insider reported:

“The intense heat wave blasting Europe with record-breaking temperatures manifested on a recent weather forecast as a screaming heat skull of death looming over France. A forecast map for Thursday, first created June 20, showed France’s scorching temperatures creating a giant, screaming face over the country as the country braced itself for the hottest temperatures since a 2003 heat wave killed 15,000 people in the country.”

“A French meteorologist named Ruben Hallali first spotted the map, and he shared it on Twitter alongside Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream.’”

“…Areas of France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Spain have experienced record-breaking temperatures this week, with some areas seeing heat of more than 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 Fahrenheit. Temperatures could still rise further as the weekend approaches.”

“People are bathing in public fountains, and a man in Germany is said to have run naked through a supermarket freezer aisle.”

“Paris has banned older cars from the city, and Germany’s autobahn highways have introduced speed limits in a bid to prevent excessive pollution in the heat, the Associated Press reported.”

“In France, schools have been closed and state exams postponed as cities install extra swimming pools, water fountains, mist machines, and ‘cool rooms’ meant to keep people cool.”

“…At least three people have died as a result of the heat wave, according to the regional French newspaper Midi Libre…It reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit in France on Saturday, the peak of an historic heat wave that plagued much of the continent last week.”

In a visual accident catching the eye of a scientist who knew some art history, the weather map of Europe, geopolitical womb of the 500-year-old world-capitalist assault on the global commons, revealed the deadly “heat skull” cooked up by the bourgeois system, with its manic addiction to carbon-spewing economic “growth” (capital accumulation) at any and all costs.

“A Death Spiral That Threatens Human Existence”

Such temperatures are themselves lethal. I write from Chicago, where a heat wave killed 739 people (disproportionately poor, Black, and elderly) over five days in the summer of 1995 [1]. Beyond just weather (the idiotic level at which Trump understands climate change), however, the real peril posed by the climate crisis is nothing less than human extinction. Left unchecked, runaway anthro-/capitalo-genic global warming will cost the species its abilities to grow abundant nutritious food, secure enough clean water, adequately cool its bodies, and resist pandemics driven in part by climatological shifts. Resource wars and reactionary nationalist, neo-fascist politics sparked in part by significantly climate-driven migrations are two more parts of the apocalyptic mix.

The Skull of Death is a fitting visual metaphor. The Four Horsemen are saddling up, thinking of bringing some other riders along to the party.

“Permafrost in the Arctic,” Dahr Jamail notes on Truthout, “is thawing so fast scientists are losing their measuring tools…instead of their just being a few centimeters of thawing each year, now several meters of soil can become destabilized in a matter of days. Adding insult to injury, the permafrost collapse is further accelerating the release of carbon into the atmosphere, possibly even doubling the amount of warming coming from greenhouse gases released from the tundra.”

“A growth-based economic system bent on wringing cash from nature,” Casey Williams writes, “has exploited the planet’s ecosystems beyond what they can bare. Now, Earth’s fragile life-support system is entering a death spiral that threatens human existence and which no one is prepared to stop.”

The interrelated and mutually reinforced capital-driven ravages of industrial pollution, chemical proliferation, animal agriculture, deforestation, ocean acidification, soil depletion, over-development are turning the planet (among other deadly things) into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. Under the pressure of these anthropogenic – or, you prefer, capitalogenic – forces, “life,” in Williams’ words, “is headed for total collapse,” with an “estimated 1 million species gone by 2050.”

“We are living,” Jamail writes, “with the full knowledge of our collapsing biosphere and watching huge portions of it vanish before our very eyes.”

Nothing Else Will Matter

This is the leading issue of our or any time. Nothing else comes close If this environmental meltdown is not addressed through a massive and quickly implemented global Green New Deal, then, as Noam Chomsky explained seven years ago, nothing else progressives and other decent and caring people care about is going to matter all that much. We’ll just be arguing over how to more equitably slice up the pieces of a scorched pie, how to turn a poisoned planet upside down. The workers of the world will have a charnel ground to win. The meek will inherit a fetid mausoleum.

Environmentalists are right to tell business elites, politicos, and policymakers that there’s no jobs, no economy, no growth, and no profits on a dead planet. Environmentalists would be equally right to tell progressives and leftists that there’s no social justice, no equality, no democracy, no civil rights, no workers’ control, no socialism, and no revolution worth having (beyond the momentary pleasure of taking revenge on the accumulation-mad Ahabs who pushed the planet over the cliff) on a lifeless Earth.

I hate to agree with a wealthy Hollywood liberal, but Robert Redford has a point:

“Collusion, obstruction of justice, impeachment or not, greedy tax breaks, medical care for all or none, refugees seeking compassion at our borders — as a citizen, I care deeply about all these things. But I also fail to see how any of it will matter without a planet to live onWe are approaching an irreversible tipping point. The science of climate change is backed by examples of the damage mankind has caused all around us, every day and everywhere. None of us are immune anymore; no matter where we live, no matter our political party…I can’t think of anything that should compel and demand our attention more.”

This would seem to be Historical Materialism 101.

Worthy and Unworthy News from Paris

Hoping for American corporate and commercial news and commentary to engage in serious and honest discussions of the severity of the threat is a fool’s game, of course. Honest engagement with dire environmental realities would interfere with the sale of goods and services and is thus unimaginable on any serious scale in “mainstream” state-capitalist media.

Look at this item from NBC News two Saturdays ago, focused on the trials of an attractive 30s-something couple braving high temperatures on a romantic but over-steamy trip to Paris:

“The unusual heat has left many struggling to cope in the French capital where homes and buildings are not designed for steamy conditions or equipped with air conditioning. …‘We were not expecting this, so when we booked our Airbnb, we literally didn’t check that it doesn’t have air conditioning,’ said Sampada Jadhav, 32, sitting under the trees at the Jardin du Palais Royal with her spouse Jay Ghag….The pair — who split their time between Mumbai, India and Bakersfield, Calif. — are used to the heat but were hoping for more comfortable temperatures…Jadhav said they changed their sight-seeing plans to ensure they’d be in museums and other attractions that are climate controlled during the hottest times of the day, and Ghag packed a bag full of water bottles.”

This is the superficial level at which Europe’s record heat interested NBC.

Here is a useful green translation of the affluent high-tech/high carbon footprint couple’s complaint, viewed as newsworthy by the network: “We exacerbate the climate crisis by flying regularly back and forth across the Pacific. If we had known the crisis was going to create such extreme heat in Paris before we flew there, we would have planned to exacerbate it by arranging to crank up some air-conditioning there.”

Mais bien sur, no such translation would be accepted by media managers at NBC or any other major U.S. television network. Corporate and commercial media caters to corporate advertisers, including airlines, tour companies, and travel agencies.

If environmentalists directed programming at NBC, they would have featured some people other than the U.S. Women’s soccer team and the globetrotting Bakersfield-Mumbai couple as newsworthy subjects in Paris. They would have highlighted the courageous young Extinction Rebellion protesters who occupied a Paris bridge on the hottest day in French history. The activists sat arm-in-arm while sadistic, overheated gendarmes sprayed tear gas directly into their faces. They faced down the heat, the police, and chemicals to demand a societal shift from fossil fuels and mass-consumerist eco-extractivism to renewable energy and sustainable lifeways.

That’s a programming decision negated in advance by commercial calculation. Media corporations sell big money advertising time to energy, airline, automobile and other corporations deeply invested in the reigning “growth-based economic system bent on wringing cash from nature.”

“An Existential Crisis Within This World”

Media matters aside, we face a terrible conundrum. The climate emergency is the clear outcome of the profits system: capitalism itself and not just “neoliberalism” – a fancy-sounding word system’s post-1970s return to its long rapacious and regressive norm. The problem is that this crisis is moving too quickly and lethally for us to make the transcendence of capitalism an all-or-nothing prerequisite for dramatic and positive climate action.

“We should never stop fighting for a better world,” Noam Chomsky told me last June 4th, “but the time scales are such that we have to deal with an existential crisis within this one. Some kind of Green New Deal is utterly necessary.”

In a smart and recent interview with Mohsen Abdelmoumen, the incisive workers’ control advocate and historian Chris Wright argues that the emergence of a much-needed socialist society. “the solidarity economy writ large…will take a very, very long time. Social revolutions on the global scale we’re talking about,” Wright says, “take generations, even centuries. It probably won’t take as long as the European transition from feudalism to capitalism, but none of us will see ‘socialism’ in our lifetimes.”

Wright may be correct, but his temporal reflections have nothing to do with addressing the rapidly moving existential crisis we are facing right now thanks to a bourgeois order that took centuries to emerge out of European feudalism (please no emails on the Dobby-Sweezy and Brenner debates). Half a millennium later, this “modern” regime of class rule has delivered us to the door of extinction (Marx and Engels might be said to have prophesied this dark denouement with their 1848 observation that class societies either move forward with the “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or see “the common ruin of the contending classes.”) The crisis must be addressed very, very quickly or its curtains and the transition from capitalism to socialism is all too sadly beside the point. Earth is our witness in the present moment – the only moment that exists.

So set aside “the radical reconstruction of society itself,” identified by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 as “the real issue to be faced”? No. The arc of history must ultimately be bent towards the egalitarian reign of the associated producers or disaster is certain. Rosa Luxembourg had it right: it’s “socialism or barbarism.” We’ve seen more than enough of the latter and far too little of the former since Rosa penned that pithy aphorism.

Still, historical-material realities have a nasty way of complicating radical aspirations. “Men,” Karl Marx famously wrote, “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

The leading inherited (but now rapidly developing) circumstance of our time is the environmental crisis, with climate collapse in the lead.

With the rise of the Third Reich and the Axis in the mid-late 1930s, leftists had no choice but to join hands with any and all allies – bourgeois ones included – in the struggle to defeat the greatest threat to humanity at the time: global fascism. That was an existential fact (grasped by no less an existentialist than Jean Paul Sartre) that could not be escaped by the time Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Slaying the fascist menace involved the massive and rapid government-directed reconversion and mobilization of political economies and societies to make the things needed (weapons, ordnance, supplies, battle-ready soldiers and more) to vanquish the fascist menace.

Now a broader and very different, deeper reconversion is required to stop our self-defeating war on livable ecology under the command of capital. Herculean action on this front (some action is underway but hardly on the scale required) is urgently need now, not in five or ten or fifteen years.

Scientific Socialism

Is sustainable and planned environmental reconversion for the common good possible under the chaotic, growth- and accumulation-addicted capitalist system, whose profit rates have always depended on the rapacious exploitation of “cheap nature” (human nature included)? Certainly not – no more than democracy can co-exist with class rule. That’s why the recently released Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) report on biodiversity loss calls, in Casey Williams words, “for nothing less that the total transformation of the global economy.” The IPBES argues, as Williams writes, that “producing for profit has failed us…and failed the planet.” The scientific finding: “we need ‘transformative change’…to prioritize human well-being and environmental sustainability rather than the pursuit of profit.”

“Scientific socialism” anyone?

Still, rapid movement towards reconversion must start now, just as the war against fascism could not be postponed until after the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved true workers’ control socialism.

The World War II analogy is very far from perfect, naturally enough. It was quite possible for the capitalist order to shed itself of the interwar fascist regimes and survive not merely intact but in fact enhanced, with profit rates booming after the massive creative destruction that cost 50 millions lives and set off a remarkable U.S-led global economic expansion that pushed the planet fully into the “Anthropocene” – a period when human activities (under the historically specific command of capital) decisively altered Earth systems. What emerged in the wake of the fascist Axis’ defeat, curiously enough, was the global hegemony of a historically unmatched military-capitalist Superpower, the United States, an outward Constitutional “democracy” where real command and control fell to an authoritarian power structure interweaving corporate oligopoly, a military-industrial complex, and a bipartisan political oligarchy – all buttressed by political money and a propagandistic media of mass consent and diversion. This was a durable, outwardly bourgeois-democratic authoritarian regime that achieved much of what classic historical fascism was meant to accomplish for the German, Italian, and Japanese ruling classes during the interwar years and World War II. It has set the world’s only Superpower up for a likely transition to something more like classic fascism in coming years.

The profits system cannot survive a serious collective effort to avert Ecocide. The demand for a decent and organized human existence functioning in harmony rather than at war with the natural environment (of which humanity is part) cannot be met under the unelected dictatorship of capital. It is ultimately anti-capitalist.

The bad news for some radicals is that the “utterly necessary” Green New Deal must be started under the current system of militarized state capitalism. The good news is that, unlike the victory over the interwar fascist regimes, a conversion to a sustainable society cannot be achieved under capitalism in any form.

Postscript: A Party of Appeasement

Since I spend so much time and energy criticizing MSDNC and the Democrats, it is only fair that I praise two positive developments I recently witnessed on the network and in the party. The first such development is that the leading issue of our or any time got top mention as the main problem facing the nation during the Democratic Party presidential debates hosted by MSDNC two weeks ago. Senator Harris (D-CA) even had the decency to point out that “climate change” is too mild a term for what is in reality a “climate crisis.”

I’ll take it. Nominal recognition of existential reality is better than abject denial, even if it is doubtful than any of the Democratic hopefuls other than (perhaps) Bernie Sanders would seriously try to implement a Green New Deal.

The second decent thing was MSDNC host Joy Reid letting America’s best elected official, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, speak freely and at length two Sundays ago about most House Democrats’ vote to give Trump $450 billion for “border security” even though the bill granting the White House the money contains no serious protections or high standards of care for detained migrants, including children in for-profit concentration camps – and despite the absence of any real way of stopping the orange racist pig from diverting money marked for humanitarian aid to “immigration enforcement.” Omar’s comments were eloquent and instructive:

“My colleagues decided that they were going to co-sign on this horrendous, cruel process that this administration has engaged in without really speaking on the kind of values that we have. That says…We are deciding that there are certain days or certain months that it is okay for children to be remained in these conditions. No child deserves to be in that condition. We have an opportunity to address this crisis in a proper way, in a humane way and to me it is really about people who are thinking about what is politically expedient. It’s about people who are thinking about what helps their friends line their pockets, and there are children that are suffering. And our values are suffering. And we can do better than this.”

When Reid asked Omar “why [Dem] moderates in the House [are] so insistent on cutting deals with the White House…when it comes to something as critical as children’s lives and safety,” the Congresswoman answered thus:

“This is one of the reasons I think the public is always frustrated with politicians. We were running for office. We said send us into the majority so we can be a check and balance to the cruelty of this administration. Now that we are in the majority we are too busy appeasing this administration and I think I can the frustration of the American people, who are really disappointed that, again, we have people in power who have forgotten the purpose and reason they were given that privilege. I am always surprised every time we are having a discussion in regard to policy how people will talk about the political reality and they don’t talk about the human reality of the policies that we are passing. We take an oath truly, to care for the American people and to make sure we are furthering policies that are in line with our values and we often fail short. And I think with the Democratic Party we’re oftentimes so trying to appease everyone we end up appeasing no one.”

I share none of Omar’s “surprise,” but I admire how the Congresswoman keeps a knowing smile on her face while she elegantly guts establishment and imperialist politicos like Elliot Abrams and Nancy Pelosi.

“Appeasement,” historically astute readers will recognize, was a widely used term to describe how much of the Western bourgeois establishment responded to the rise of the Third Reich.  It is an appropriate description of how the dismal and demobilizing dollar Democrats – the party that Sheldon Wolin aptly termed the Inauthentic Opposition – have responded to the creeping-/pre-fascist Trump administration on numerous issues, from “border security” to the Pentagon budget, the surveillance state, the economic torture and demonization of Venezuela and Iran, the coddling of racist Israel, violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, impeachment (as in non), the smearing of “socialism” (the mild social democracy of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and more.

Nowhere is appeasement/inauthentic opposition more lethal than on the issue of ecology.  Of all the terrible things Trump has done, none is more egregious than his climate-denialist escalation of the carbon-capitalist war on a livable environment.  Democrats who had the courage of their avowed convictions on the “climate crisis” (try “Climate Emergency,” Senator Harris) would lead with Trump’s actions in that policy area and not with the comparatively minor matter of his weird relationship with the Russian government (pro-fossil fuel by the way) when it comes to advancing reasons for removing the tangerine-tinted monster from the White House via impeachment and/or the absurdly anti-democratic Electoral College (how about through relentless mass civil disobedience with millions occupying the streets, town halls, offices, schools, and workplaces, etc.?)  In harsh reality, however, most of the Democratic presidential contenders beyond the social democratic military-Keynesian Sanders (the supposed “radical left socialist” the party and its many media allies are working hard and effectively to marginalize) depend on campaign contributions from fossil fuel and other commercial and corporate interests that are hopelessly attached to “a growth-based economic system bent on wringing cash from nature.”  These candidates depend also on the favor of a corporate and commercial media that is wired among other things to make sure that millions of citizens (or ex-citizens) in the world’s leading historical carbon emitting nation are NOT in fact “living with full knowledge of our collapsing biosphere” and of what lay behind the collapse.  Hence my own choice for a leading target of the commoners’ revolution to save the commons and preserve the common good: the corporate enclosure of mass communications.


1. Michael Borunda, 35, said this to NBC News while marching in extreme heat in a gay Pride parade on Paris, France two weeks ago: “I lived in Chicago for five years and heat never stopped anybody; it doesn’t matter how hot it is.” Wrong: the heat in Chicago stopped 739 people dead and cold in the summer of 1995. It matters how hot it is.


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