Discover more from Beyond the Waste Land
Media builds partisan cages to further ruling class dominance. Evolving Trumpism into Chavezism (Cesar, not Hugo) threatens this strategy.
Classic 20th century totalitarian propaganda had a mostly universalizing tendency. If we imagine a “circle of inclusion”, a perimeter between “Us” and “Them”, in the Soviet Union, the enemy was the “Kulaks”. These were petty bourgeois farmers who were econmically a step above the common peasant, but were only a small percentage of the population. The popular slogan “Kill the Kulak” was only aimed at a small proportion of the population. When slogan became policy, the Holodomor was launched in the early 1930’s and upwards of nine million Ukrainians were massacred by the Communist authorities, often through starvation. Of the nine million dead, only a small percentage were actual Kulaks. Collateral damage happens.
Again in Nazi Germany, the Us vs Them propaganda targeted the Jewish minority, along with a few others, who were declared social misfits. Once the tide of the war turned, the Nazis massacred upwards of six million Jews and associated “misfits” during the Holocaust.
These propaganda campaigns can be labelled “universalist” as the goal was to create a pure “Us” and to abolish the “Them”. What’s striking about early 21th century American propaganda is that it seems to aim for something close to a 50/50 Us /Them split among the US population. What would this be?
The ruling class goal seeks to herd into partisan cages two relatively equally divided groups . Each cage would have several sound ideas mixed in with many unsound ideas. The definition of a “sound” idea is one the empowers or enriches the people, particularly at the lower end of the economic ladder. Unsound ideas further enrich and empower the ruling class oligarchy. The beauty of this two party system, with generally divided (gridlocked) government, is that during election campaigns, the two parties can emphasize their “sound” policies but once installed into power, explain that due to the evil other party, they are forced to govern by implementing unsound, ruling class friendly policies. The key is to get partisans caged on emotional issues – and not economics. Very soon a President Biden will have to explain why it is all the GOP Senate’s fault he cannot do all the nice things he promised despite really, really wanting to.
One party having too much power is a dangerous and unstable situation for the ruling class because that party’s caged partisans may be provoked into hoping for “sound” change. In 2008 this situation occurred, with Obama sweeping to power by taking the House and a huge majority in the Senate. Hopes were raised on the left that Obama would address the US health care crisis. The left preferred a “public option”, which in effect would allow Americans to purchase Medicare, a government health plan. The ruling class had no appetite for this. What was Obama to do? He allowed the health care industry to write his eventual bill. They based their plan on Mitt Romney’s health care plan for Massachusetts. This plan had been based on an old plan from the Heritage Foundation, a right wing, libertarian organization. Republicans must have been jubilant. But Obama set one huge condition before he would attach his name to this private health care plan: the GOP must fight tooth and nail against this plan, but never to the point of killing it. What Obama needed was “rhetorical cover”. In action films, the hero will often demand “cover” as he attempts to move into a more vulnerable situation. The sidekick will spray machine gun fire and as our brave hero somersaults away across the field of action. With the GOP furiously denouncing Obama Care, progressives were forced to react and defend a right wing health care proposal. Obama ran out the clock until the GOP grabbed the House in 2010.
From the ruling class point of view, the ideal situation is to have the two groups penned into their partisan cages by sheer emotion and hate for the Other. This way as each party takes power, the partisans will not demand “sound” policies that may help them, but will only glow in the satisfaction that they have “owned” the Other.
Partisan cages are constructed in simultaneously building ingroup amity and stoking outgroup enmity among such each group. What’s important is creating a form of media isolation between the two partisan communities. So in building one community, the “Us”, it is crucial to at the same time demolish any existing community links with the “Them”. Partisan polarity, based on the emotions of fear and hate, is the oligarch friendly outcome.
The roots of this strategy can be found in Rush Limbaugh and the rise of right wing radio in the late 80’s. The Reagan Administration managed to get the Fairness Doctrine overturned, which allowed the rise of a partisan, one-sided media. With no obligation to present issues in an “honest, equitable, and balanced” way, Limbaugh could resort to emotionalism and crude insults to help cement, particularly working class voters, into the ruling class GOP partisan cage without any expectation of GOP policies that may actually help the working class.
In response to the rise of Trump, the entire media, including to a slightly lesser extent Fox News, became the left wing equivalents of Limbaugh, throwing raw anti-Trump emotionalism at their viewers that was void of any working class content. What’s interesting is the anti-Trump media’s use of Cold War tropes in attacking Trump. These “butch” attacks included calling him a Russian stooge and for hating the troops. It’s as if the media saw Trump as some sort of bizarro reincarnation of George McGovern! The constant repetition of the “bombshell” trope against Trump meant the White House sometimes seemed to be located closer to Dresden than the Potomac.
But all this raw televised emotionalism certainly did increase media profits. Which brings up and interesting question. Is the raison d'être of the corporate media propaganda or profits? Did Jeff Bezos purchase the Washington Post because of its stellar revenue streams or did he see it more as an investment in marketing / public relations? On deeper level, shouldn’t Trump’s working class friendly policies have been welcomed by the oligarchic powers since giving the bottom half of the population more spending power would certainly mean more higher sales and profits for corporations. Why would the oligarchs be against this? But against it they were, in July of 2016, a fleet of 57 private jets gathered along the Georgian cost:
Billionaires, tech CEOs and top members of the Republican establishment flew to a private island resort off the coast of Georgia this weekend for the American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum, according to sources familiar with the secretive gathering.
The main topic at the closed-to-the-press confab? How to stop Republican front-runner Donald Trump. (The meeting was not planned to be a strategy session on how to stop the GOP front-runner, but rather evolved into one, as a subsequently obtained agenda makes clear.)
Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google co-founder Larry Page, Napster creator and Facebook investor Sean Parker, and Tesla Motors and SpaceX honcho Elon Musk all attended. So did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), political guru Karl Rove, House Speaker Paul Ryan, GOP Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Ben Sasse (Neb.), who recently made news by saying he “cannot support Donald Trump.”
Along with Ryan, the House was represented by Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (Mich.), Rep. Kevin Brady (Texas) and almost-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), sources said, along with leadership figure Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and Diane Black (Tenn.).
Philip Anschutz, the billionaire GOP donor whose company owns a stake in Sea Island, was also there, along with Democratic Rep. John Delaney, who represents Maryland. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, was there, too, a Times spokeswoman confirmed.
“A specter was haunting the World Forum—the specter of Donald Trump,” Kristol wrote in an emailed report from the conference, borrowing the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto. “There was much unhappiness about his emergence, a good deal of talk, some of it insightful and thoughtful, about why he’s done so well, and many expressions of hope that he would be defeated.”
To understand ruling class resistance to Trump, one has to look at it as similar to ruling class resistance to full employment. Until the economy was crushed by the pandemic, Trump came close to creating full employment which is a manifestation of worker scarcity. Shouldn’t corporate America be happy if Americans have more money to hand over to them through full employment. Marxist economist Michal Kalecki studied this puzzling ruling class attitude back in the 1930’s Why is the ruling class promoting unemployment which seems to be against their own class interests? In this famous paper, Political Aspects of Full Employment, Kalecki argues:
We shall deal first with the reluctance of the 'captains of industry' to accept government intervention in the matter of employment. Every widening of state activity is looked upon by business with suspicion, but the creation of employment by government spending has a special aspect which makes the opposition particularly intense. Under a laissez-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives the capitalists a powerful indirect control over government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.
As for increasing mass consumption:
One might therefore expect business leaders and their experts to be more in favour of subsidising mass consumption (by means of family allowances, subsidies to keep down the prices of necessities, etc.) than of public investment; for by subsidizing consumption the government would not be embarking on any sort of enterprise. In practice, however, this is not the case. Indeed, subsidizing mass consumption is much more violently opposed by these experts than public investment. For here a moral principle of the highest importance is at stake. The fundamentals of capitalist ethics require that 'you shall earn your bread in sweat'—unless you happen to have private means.
Indeed, under a regime of permanent full employment, the 'sack' would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension. It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire; and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But 'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the 'normal' capitalist system.
What we can see here is that despite stereotypes to the contrary, in the oligarchic world, short term profits are only a tactical consideration while long term narrative control is of the highest strategic concern. So despite potential short term gains “captains of industry” might have gained by accepting Trumpism and gains to working class spending power, plutocratic long term interests are in maintaining themselves at the center of power. And the key to this is to take economic issues off the table of polite discussion. Race, sex, orientation, in short identitarian issues are proving indispensable to keeping the population more or less evenly split along non-economic issues.
Even Trump’s initial announcement of his candidacy back in 2015, accompanied by words interpreted as hostile to Hispanics, can be seen along this same strategy of polarity. It’s as if Trump was well aware of the potential unifying power of his call for worker scarcity but he immediately struck himself out of potential Hispanic voters’ circles of inclusion in order to increase polarity. In the end this worked and Trump just managed to squeak by with a victory—not a mandate. But with the sea change that occurred among Hispanic voters towards Trumpism in the 2020 election, the future is looking cloudy for the ruling class and their strategy of polarity. If Trumpism can be rebranded as Chavezism (Cesar, not Hugo), while keeping its core values of worker scarcity and anti-imperialism, a more cosmopolitan working class movement will be available for use by any power hunger populist candidates that may arise in the coming years. The corporate media have discredited themselves so much over the past four years that they will see their power to stop the rise of Chavezism limited, although the ruling class will not be lacking in options to squash it.