BOOK REVIEW/Seth Sandronsky

Making Media Democracy

The Web makes the press better, right? Not quite, writes Robert W. McChesney in Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy (Monthly Review Press, 2014).

A media scholar, he unpacks the demise of commercial journalism and its potential rise as a public good in the online era. Meanwhile, ad revenue plummets, as digital journalism appears, falsely, as a savior for print journalism. McChesney dissects the strengths and weaknesses of so-called new media. A sub-theme in his radical critique of the American political economy melds areas of agreement among and between the left and right. One example is opposition to multinational corporations’ monopoly presence in the economy. Consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader has a slightly similar take. The over-arching problem of the corporate media is, argues McChesney, a symptom of the rot in the political economy of finance-monopoly capitalism. Marshalling empirical evidence of that, e.g., absence of competition in key industries thanks in part to Uncle Sam’s intervention, he in wide-ranging essays and an interview calls for “post-capitalist democracy.” McChesney defines and elaborates this term, perhaps less threatening than socialism to some.

Throughout the book, readers receive a primer on radical political economy, e.g., a driving force of capital accumulation that eclipses every human value. We learn about the warfare state of elite-driven politics. Its domestic corollary includes punitive police and prisons for minority citizens. The author digs deep to make clear the system’s powerful disguises. They arrive, like toxic plumes of disempowerment, via mainstream media that entertains rather than informs. The latter is a must for a functioning democracy.

In the meantime, justice movements need goals, short- and long-term, to push forward. McChesney’s chapter on the 2011 workers’ revolt in Wisconsin complements Sam Mayfield’s fine documentary film Wisconsin Rising. Together, their efforts help us to get a better grasp of what is at stake and why in GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s successful bid to end collective bargaining power for public-sector workers in the Badger State, an agenda moving ahead in nearby states.

A chapter on the New Deal 2.0 that wasn’t, isn’t and won’t be under Pres. Obama, is revealing. McChesney lays out the radical critique of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy. This duo explain the whys and wherefores of a ceiling on government spending for civilian programs in the American political system. Better to have a cold reality than a warm fantasy. If your education, like mine, did not include the arc of the American press from the early days of the slave-holding and Native-killing republic forward, get ready to return to school. McChesney’s perspective dovetails with Noam Chomsky’s media analysis.

McChesney presents a left anti-corporate viewpoint of, by and for small enterprises. He is no armchair anti-business progressive, co-founding Free Press, an advocacy group mobilizing at the grassroots level for a truly public journalism. Its recent work mobilized millions of ordinary Americans to push for saving network neutrality, e.g., maintaining free and open access to the Internet, which firms such as Comcast want to end for reasons of profits and market share. The many can fight and win against a moneyed few seeking to privatize the digital commons.

Returning to the dismal science, the author asserts that economic stagnation is the root problem of the system. Growth slows, and with that, distribution of labor’s fruits to the general populace worsens. The income and wealth gap grows between the top tier and everybody else. Even establishment economists such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers are stating that stagnation of growth and wages defines the US economy. This theme runs throughout the essays in McChesney’s book, some of which have appeared in the Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine launched 56 years ago. He applies the analytic framework of stagnation and its offspring of financial explosion, e.g., Wall Street’s outsized rise, to the US political economy. With too few profitable investments in goods and services, amid an upper class war on labor unions and the welfare state, elite wealth flows into the financial industry. Accordingly, Wall St.’s growth and political presence in both parties is a cancerous consequence of this economic imbalance. McChesney aims to improve readers’ grasp of what is at stake and why, and to spur them to coalesce for a more humane social order. Free Press shows the way. What is possible, economically and politically, begins with the grassroots, regular people of all backgrounds. The culture of the system plays no small role in establishing how people reproduce it. For-profit media communicates perpetuates a “shop until you drop” mentality of 24/7 consumerism, e.g., worship at the altar of the commodity. McChesney reviews a missing chapter of ‘Monopoly Capital’ by Baran and Sweezy, whose take on cultural consciousness features the views of critics such as Bertolt Brecht and Herbert Marcuse, and the New Left.

McChesney’s prose is accessible and voice is authoritative. The Notes and an Index provide supplementary material for students and teachers. Read. Learn. Get up and go.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento-based journalist. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2015

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