My 22-year-old daughter is learning some harsh realities about America’s dystunctional politico-economic system.
In December, Emma graduated from the University of Minnesota with a double-major in psychology and child psychology. Even though she completed her B.A. in just three and a-half years, she finished up with honors and a GPA just shy of 4.0.
Just before graduation, a faculty member who’d taught one of Emma’s classes offered her a position as a part-time research assistant earning $15 an hour for 20 hours a week – more than enough for someone who shares a house with several other young people to cover expenses and even put something away for grad school. Emma was walking on air, looking forward to a bright future.
But then a funny thing happened. When she showed up to sign the papers for her new job, the HR folks informed her that her prof had been mistaken: the only position the U was prepared to offer was for up to 14 hours a week at $10 an hour. Emma gulped and accepted the revised offer.
Since then her 20 hours a week, $15 an hour job has turned into on-call temp work, with Emma sometimes working two or three hours a week. She is now scrambling around to find a real job but so far, no luck, other than some babysitting gigs. This spring, when her lease runs out, she is probably going to move in back with us.
And, oh yes, she’s now been dropped from my health insurance coverage because she is no longer a full-time student.
Emma is far more fortunate than many people her age — and older. She has a home she can return to, and parents willing and able to help out. But in microcosm, her predicament offers a real-life comment on the so-called American Dream.
And what is the truth about that dream? Simply this: late stage consumer capitalism – what I like to think of as Stage 4 capitalism, a malignancy that has escaped its initial site and now ravages the entire body politic – is good at doing only one thing.
It is not, as my daughter is learning, any good at providing jobs that promote social mobility. As millions of others know, neither is it any good at providing health care for everyone, healthy food, a rational transit system, affordable housing or a life imbued with meaning and purpose.
No. The only thing that Stage 4 capitalism is any good at is manufacturing false consciousness, that endlessly elaborating, ever-expanding fog of distraction and self-destructive values in which happiness is equated with purchasing power and realizing the goal of living inside a pain-free, disengaged bubble. A bubble in which the answer to every one of life’s questions is the same: “more.” A bubble in which, like the elderly couple I saw recently leaving a grocery store carrying two 12-packs of Sprite and two economy-sized packages of Depends adult diapers, even our ability to connect cause with effect or to be able to perceive what is in our own best interest has been fatally compromised.
As Herbert Marcuse wrote in An Essay on Liberation, “The market has always been one of exploitation and thereby of domination, insuring the class structure of society. However the productive process of advanced capitalism has altered the form of domination…Not the automobile is repressive, not the television set is repressive, not the household gadgets are repressive, but…produced in accordance with the requirements of profitable exchange [they] have become part and parcel of the people’s own existence, their own ‘actualization.’ Thus [people] have to buy part and parcel of their own existence on the market; this existence is the realization of capital. The naked class interest builds the unsafe and obsolescent automobiles and through them promotes destructive energy; the class interest employs the mass media for the advertising of violence and stupidity…Self-determination, the autonomy of the individual, asserts itself in the right to race his automobile, to handle his power tools, to buy a gun, to communicate to mass audiences his opinion, no matter how ignorant, how aggressive, it may be. Organized capitalism has sublimated and turned to socially productive use frustration and primary aggressiveness on an unprecedented scale – unprecedented not in terms of the quantity of violence but rather in terms of its capacity to produce long-range contentment and satisfaction, to reproduce ‘voluntary servitude.'”
Can anyone say “Tea Party?”
Marcuse wrote that in 1969; today the reach and power of the corporate media he cites as the primary tool employed by capitalism to merchandise false consciousness have grown exponentially and are now all but inescapable.
One measure of the falseness of what is being peddled can be encapsulated by a single fact: despite our 24/7 news outlets, the rise of the Internet, and the availability of thousands of print publications, year after year international surveys show that Americans are the most poorly informed – or perhaps, most richly misinformed is a more accurate way of putting it – population of any advanced society on earth.
And it’s getting worse. We have not even begun to reckon with the implications of the fact that the corporate mass media is the first normative institution in the world governed solely by the profit motive. Yes, money is involved in every other normative institution – families, churches, schools, the military – but profit is not (or should not be, certainly) the sole purpose of those institutions, their raison d’etre.
If we analyze the values and behaviors promoted by those other institutions, we see that they are fundamentally different from those promoted by the mass media. Even the military tries to inculcate ideas like personal responsibility, self-reliance, concern for others, foresight, and self-sacrifice in the interest of the common good. Schools, meanwhile, promote (or should promote) curiousity about the world-at-large and self-discipline. Religious institutions preach care for the needy and the strangers among us.
By contrast, backed by the largest and most heavily financed propaganda campaign in history – some $200 billion in consumer advertising alone – a propaganda campaign, incidentally, that dwarfs anything Hitler or Stalin could have imagined in their wildest dreams, the mass media promotes values and behaviors consistent with the metastatic growth consumer capitalism requires for its parasitic survival: selfishness, impulsivity, greed, and dependency, while playing upon the full range of negative emotions – fear, anger, envy, pride, self-loathing – to drive the message home.
At the moment, the power and ubiquity of the corporate media is overwhelming the counter-messages of other normative institutions. In turn, that means that any hope we might have of reforming or even reining in an economic system that, in its cancerous way, now threatens the very ecosystem we rely on for civilized life will require us to reform or replace the corporate mass media with a non-corporate independent media, including a non-corporate, independent press willing to take on the news media’s historic role of ensuring the survival of democracy by creating an informed citizenry.
Fortunately, there are now some organizations, like The Twin Cities Daily Planet, trying to fill this role, and a number of increasingly influential writers and thinkers laying out the case for media reform.
Two of those individuals, Robert McChesney, founder of FreePress.net, and John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, will be in town this week to promote their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that will Begin the World Again. I urge everyone to take the opportunity to hear them speak.
Their appearance is being sponsored by the Twin Cities Media Alliance, which operates the Daily Planet. It takes place this Thursday, March 25, at 8:00 p.m., at Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis. The event is free but it’s probably good to RSVP if you can, since seating is limited. You can do so by clicking on http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=329012902098
See you there.
We have nothing to lose but our self-forged chains.