Disappear the System: A Critical Hegemonic Function of Capitalist Media

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Something stinks in the wall-to-wall broadcast of every detail in the Derek Chauvin trial. The hegemonic (in a Marxian sense) result of drilling down so microscopically on one racist cop’s super-transgression, treating the killer as a rogue anomaly, is to disappear the broader mass-carceral white supremacist police-state and the underlying system of racialized class oppression that routinely ruins Black lives. Chauvin is being tried on cable television as “the sacrificial lamb necessary to protect—by deflecting attention away from”—the whole damn system. “Because the murder of George Floyd has received so much international attention amid recent (but ongoing since four centuries) spates of brutality by American law enforcement against non-whites,” an expatriate correspondent writes me from Germany, “it has become important for America’s (mis)leaders to try to demonstrate that the U.S. is not some crippled, raggedy-assed failed state where the rule of law clearly no longer applies.”

This is just one example among many. A fundamental rule in corporate-crafted U.S. media-politics culture is that the systemic taproot of the people’s pain must be ignored and obscured. The nightly news gives a running record of inner-city bloodshed but never includes serious discussion of the savage race-class apartheid that generates misery and violence in deeply impoverished and hyper-segregated communities of color. What results is a decontextualized “urban nightmare” horror show that feeds white racist “law and order” sentiments.

CBS lets Charles Barkley observe (during the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four last weekend) that American politicians play the game of racial “divide-and-conquer” in order to “keep their grasp on money and power.” It was neat to see “Chuck” speak that basic truth. But the network would never bring on a W.E.B. DuBois scholar (or a radical NBA veteran like Craig Hodges, pushed out of the NBA because of his left politics) to explain how racial division and Machiavellian Othering are rooted in the nature of the national and world capitalist system.

The nightly national news tells heartfelt stories about Central Americans trying to flee their miserable terror- and climate change-ravaged homelands. It says nothing about how Washington’s longstanding hemispheric imperialism and U.S.-led, planet-baking global capitalism have made decent lives impossible for millions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Masses of American viewers are led to falsely think the United States has no responsibility for the trials of Central America and no obligation to help Central Americans.

CBS’s 60 Minutes recently told the inspiring story of how six marooned teenagers from Tonga cooperated peacefully and democratically to survive on a tiny uninhabited South Pacific island for 15 months in the mid-1960s. The story offers, CBS noted, a real-life refutation of the dark image of humanity portrayed in the widely read and still frequently assigned 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, wherein shipwrecked British schoolboys descended into tribal bloodshed and murderous hierarchy. It was a nice segment. Still, 60 Minutes would never bring on a serious Left cultural theorist or historian to explain why a frankly shitty and depressing novel like Lord of the Flies ever became a “modern classic” in the first place. As any good historical materialist could explain, William Golding’s insipid tale cleverly channeled the reigning Western bourgeois notion of “human nature” as inherently violent and selfish – and as therefore requiring proper harnessing and mediation by a purportedly “adult” and “civilized” (capitalist) state. Somewhat on the model of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in an earlier era, and Garrett Hardin’s sickening and also exceedingly popular (and disastrously influential) essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” 14 years later, Lord of the Flies provided a ruing class-friendly moral fable on behalf of capitalist property and authority relations.

It is possible nowadays to hear American media personnel relate extreme weather events and even migration-driving despair in Central America to anthropogenic climate change. That’s good, but one will look far and wide before they see or hear anybody beyond the narrow corporate-policed parameters of permissible debate reasonably discuss capitalogenic climate destruction – the cooking and poisoning of the planet thanks to capitalism’s relentless drive to appropriate, commodify, and exploit every resource under the sun. The operative force is here is the systemic imperative of accumulation and “growth” to counter the unforgiving tendency of the rate of profit to decline.

It is only on the margins, outside the official boundaries, that you will find properly scientific, historical-materialist warnings against historically unspecific and class-blind uses of “anthros” that project the eco-cidal age of capital onto the broad 100,000-year swath of human activity. As the Marxist environmental geographer/sociologist/historian Jason W. Moore told Sasha Lilley more than a decade ago, “It was not humanity as whole that created …large-scale industry and the massive textile factories of Manchester in the 19th century or Detroit in the last century or Shenzen today. It was capital.”

It is only during the relatively brief period of history when capitalism has ruled the world system (since 1600 or thereabouts by some academic calculations, earlier and later by others) that human social organization has developed the capacity and inner compulsion to transform Earth systems with durable profitability dependent upon on the rapacious enclosure and arrogation of what Moore calls  “cheap nature”: cheap food, cheap energy, cheap raw materials and cheap human labor power or cheap human nature.

Americans were subjected to four-plus years of constant, trauma-inducing media coverage of the endlessly transgressive madness of the malignantly narcissist and neofascistic Lord of the Flies president Donald Trump. It was a steady, nonstop news diet of personalized evil, cruelty, and idiocy that left little doubt that Malignant Orange was one of the most sickening and dangerous beings ever to befoul this planet. Much of the reporting and commentary was thorough and hard-hitting, if excessively and often absurdly reluctant to properly identify Trump and Trumpism as fascist. It was unthinkable, however, that “mainstream” (corporate) U.S. media would honestly and fully relate how Trump and his malevolent, white nationalist, and pandemicist presidency – responsible for over half a million excess U.S. deaths at least – was an epitome of America’s longtime white-supremacist capitalism and the fascist tendencies that are rooted in the soulless imperial class dictatorship that is the reign of capital at the end of the day. The corporate media’s obsession with the undeniable crimes of the Trumpenstein Antichrist (surely meriting punishment on the model of what befell “Damiens the Regicide” on March 1, 1757) is similar to the obsession with the beastly criminality of Derek Chauvin: an individualized rogue distraction from the deeper oppression system.

Much the same can be said about the pandemic that Trump and his pandemofascist soul brother Jair Bosonaro have done so much to fan in their respective countries. COVID-19 and what to do about it is a media obsession, understandably enough given its terrible and ongoing toll. The contagion has been sliced and diced in countless different ways in American corporate media. But don’t look for American corporate news and commentary to promote a serious discussion of how it is rooted in a relentlessly expansive profits system that brings humans into lethal contact with new zoonotic diseases while assaulting biodiversity in ways that make pandemics a recurrent menace. As Arooba Ahmed of Columbia University’s Earth Institute observed last fall, in a report that received little attention amidst Trump’s reckless assault on the election he lost – an assault that criminally took up all the White House’s energy while the nation endured a giant third COVID-19 wave:

“Globalization, industrialization, and urbanization have led us to encroach on natural environments, resulting in increased contact with wildlife that we would not encounter otherwise…Such interactions enable diseases to jump from primates into humans, and they become more likely when human industries destroy natural habitats and traverse deeper into forested regions to obtain natural resources to fuel expansion and trade. Widespread contact between human communities and wildlife has left us prone to new diseases such as SARS…Beyond just increased contact with wildlife, habitat destruction disrupts the natural balance in ways that can fuel pandemics. Human pressure on biodiversity through land-use change — resulting from agricultural expansion, logging, infrastructure development and other human activities — is the most common driver of infectious disease emergence, accounting for approximately one third of all emerging disease events….These stressors disrupt the environment’s infectious disease dynamics by changing the species composition of ecosystems to favor species that more frequently spread diseases to humans, such as bats, rodents, and birds.” (emphasis added).

At the same time, the Earth Institute observed that social inequality causes pandemics to wreak their worst damage on the poor: “It is important also to consider the severe inequality regarding who is most vulnerable to contracting the diseases that result from human pressure on biodiversity…the individuals who have few resources to combat the diseases are most susceptible, particularly when large companies are the actors catalyzing this environmental destruction.” This is true in every part of the world, and the Covid 19-era United
States is no exception

If I were a producer at a major American television outlet, I would bring on Arooba Ahmed and pair her with Binghamton University’s Moore, author of Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015). I’d prompt Moore to explain how the globalization and encroachment his fellow panelist described was written into the inner workings and logic of the inherently imperial and savagely unequal capitalist system that nobody is supposed to talk about. And that’s one of the many reasons I’ll never be a producer at a major American television network.

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