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Counter-Power?

The presidential inauguration, and the Women’s March on Washington the next day, revealed the extent of the social and political polarization that exists in the United States: glimpses of the right-wing surge around Trump – and of counter-power, stoking a possibility of radical change.

The incoming Republican president’s inner circle of advisors and his cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires are committed to an authoritarian plutocracy at home, and an abandonment of multilateralism in favor of power politics abroad.[1] Only slightly distanced is a Republican-controlled Congress that is dead-set on cutting already-insufficient wages, benefits, and working conditions, and that is eagerly directing attacks against poor people, women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and the LGBQT community. Violations of the human rights of the US people are spreading:  Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven heavily Muslim countries does damage both domestically and internationally – and his support for torture presages more.

The new administration presides over a political party system that is in disarray. Trump’s candidacy came as a deep affront to members of the Republican Party establishment, whom he knocked off one by one.  Beginning his run for the nomination as an outsider, he climaxed it by taking over the Republican Party. The results of the election then blasted the Democrats into near-inconsequentiality. Trump’s presidency therefore did not emerge out of the party structures that shape – and strangle – US political life: He is a loose cannon, and this goes beyond his temperament.

Considerable contingency also suffuses the counter-power.  The overwhelming success of the Women’s March – people in the millions turning out, not only in Washington but also in hundreds of other US cities and around the world – made it the largest day of protest in US history.[2] Included were many who demanded an end to racist violence and gender discrimination, and who insisted that the United States be restructured in radical and inclusive ways. Many other participants wanted chiefly to vent their angst and fury at Trump’s ascendancy:  Socially and politically, it’s a complex formation.  The strategic question is whether it will become a bearer of “resistance,” as Angela Davis hopefully put it, that goes on to contest each violation perpetrated by Trump’s four-year incumbency.

It’s early days, but it’s already clear that the new Administration’s forceful threats to our public information system will figure in deciding this question.

Attention has aptly focused on “Alternative Facts”: the term with which Trump aide Kellyanne Conway attempted to deflect NBC journalist Chuck Todd, when he challenged her on the new Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie: that the audience for the Trump inauguration was the largest in US presidential history.[3]  More revealing was Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s intervention. Preibus told Chris Wallace on Fox News “The point is not the crowd size, the point is that the attacks and the attempts to delegitimize this president on day one – and we’re not going to sit around and take it…there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen.  We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.”[4]  Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, then declared that the media are the “opposition party”[5]; and, the next day, Trump himself echoed Bannon’s words.[6]

Some may compare these attacks on the press to those of the Nixon Administration. Remember Vice President Spiro Agnew, who cried out that the media were “nattering nabobs of negativism;” recollect Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications Policy, which became his Administration’s top-gun against commercial newscasters as well as PBS officials – for producing news and documentaries that it deemed inimical to the US war on Indochina. Even-keeled analysts, however, also need to recall a more immediate precursor, the Obama Administration, whose anti-press measures were considered the most extreme since Nixon and even garnered a report from the Committee To Protect Journalists.[7] That report quoted New York Times reporter David Sanger that “this is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”[8]  Obama’s efforts at media control persisted, furthermore, into the final days of his presidency. Before leaving the White House, Obama quietly gave the green light (buried in the provisions of the 2017 Defense Authorization Act) to create a Global Engagement Center (GEC) housed within the State Department. The purpose of the GEC is to “lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.” [9] The little known GEC will become part of a massive and longstanding US global propaganda machine.

Trump’s people are indeed indulging in innuendo and smears, and adopting Nixon’s preferred strategy of direct government intimidation to create a chilling atmosphere.  However, to take full measure of what is occurring requires that we move beyond journalism, to sketch a more far-reaching campaign to uproot and transform our overall system of public information. This many-sided endeavor is also, crucially, anchored both in ideology and political-economy.

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Free Markets In Action

Even when it isn’t election season in the United States, there’s a lot of noise made about “the free market” and “entrepreneurialism.”  Government, goes the refrain, simply needs to stand back to let the alchemy of capitalism proceed.  Already, the new year has disclosed two small but revealing news items that clarify the actual – contrary – reality.

The first concerns driverless cars.  Much ballyhooed, the major story has been whether the transition to software-powered vehicles will be shepherded by the big automakers – or by Silicon Valley.  The news peg, as we all have learned, is “disruption”: the competitive market in action.

Not so fast.  Consider recent disclosures that the U.S. Government will “expedite regulatory guidelines for autonomous vehicles and invest in research to help bring them to market.” The Obama Administration, it turns out, has pledged no less than $4 billion in its proposed budget for the next fiscal year, “to fund research projects and infrastructure improvements tied to driverless cars.”[i]  The relationship between government regulators and corporate carmakers is aptly described as “cooperative” – including with regard to vehicle safety as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is ready to exempt carmakers from safety standards.[ii] Are driverless cars the answer to the environmental despoliation caused by automobiles?  An open-ended and inclusive public deliberation could give us the answer.  We won’t get it.  The objective of the Obama budget item is already taken for granted:  “to accelerate the acceptance of driverless cars on U.S. roads.”[iii]

Four billion dollars isn’t what it was; still, it’s a sum that would suffice to fund a lot of college scholarships for students from poor families – 49 million people are struggling to have enough food to eat in the US according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.[iv] But the government trough remains full, instead, for the big units of corporate capital – the ones whose executives so often pontificate about free markets and the evils of big-government.

Here’s another tidbit that imparts a comparable lesson.  It turns out that billionaire Michael Dell – of the eponymous PC company – has drawn on his investment fund to purchase a dozen or so mostly small U.S. television stations since 2011. Is Dell’s purpose to enter the broadcast market, and to innovate in ways that lead to further profitable success?  Not exactly.  His investment is based on his knowledge that the airwaves – the electromagnetic frequencies – used by these small broadcasters are going to be auctioned by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission later this year – bought, and then resold to big wireless operators like AT&T.

Dell acquired this whole lot of TV station frequencies for $80 million; he might be able to resell them to the government for as much as several billion dollars.  The several stations he acquired in Pittsburgh, for example, might garner as much as $1.47 billion; the $8 million he spent on KTLN in San Rafael California might win him as much as $370.5 million from the FCC.  And, the Wall Street Journal imparts, Dell “isn’t the only spectrum speculator.”  As might be predicted, likeminded predators hail from what is euphemistically referred to as the investor community: Fortress Investment Group and the infamous Blackstone Group in particular.[v]

Why couldn’t the airwaves simply be reclaimed by the government – what we so often term “our” government?  After all, despite storms of popular protest, they were preferentially allocated to commercial broadcasters without charge.[vi]  A fair reimbursement would be Dell’s purchase price for each station. This option, however, is not deemed worthy of discussion in mainstream policy discourse. Also off-limits is that the natural resource on which broadcasting, mobile telecommunications, and satellites each depend, the electromagnetic spectrum, is being transformed into a proprietary good rather than a public resource.  Is this its best use?

Often, inequality is characterized as a condition that is inexorable.  Some are rich, some are poor:  it’s always been so.  In fact, inequality is continually extended and enlarged via routine political-economic mechanisms.  The state plays an essential role in this larger process.  In communications and information, the state endows companies with franchises and rights of way, allocates spectrum, makes supportive R&D expenditures, and contracts for services with private providers.  Boondoggling and corruption of course are regular features.  This, however, should not obscure the fundamental structural reality:  Capital needs the state, no matter how often individual capitalists may protest its supposed incursions.  That’s the lesson of these two stories – the beat goes on.

[i] Bill Vlasic, “Administration Proposes Effort on Driverless Cars,” New York Times, January 15, 2016

[ii] Allisa Walker, “Everything You Need to Know About Obama’s Autonomous Car Plan,” Gizmodo, January 21, 2016..

[iii] Mike Spector and Mike Ramsey, “U.S. Wants to Steer More Driverless Cars,” Wall Street Journal, January 15,  2016.

[iv] US Department of Agriculture Economic Services, “Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2014.

[v] Thomas Gryta and Kate Linebaugh, “Computer Mogul Michael Dell Stand to reap Billions from FCC Auction ,” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2016.

[vi] Robert W. McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.