Smearing Stein: Media as Propaganda


Jill Stein, the Green Party’s nominee for president, has been the sudden target of attacks from all corners of online media since the official end of Bernie Sanders’ campaign at the Democratic National Convention. Outlets like the Washington Post, New York Magazine and Gizmodo have assaulted Stein by using out-of-context quotes to assail her, wrongly, for being anti-vaccination and anti-WiFi, which is a code for being “anti-science.” This allows us a unique opportunity to confirm the structural role of the media as hypothesized by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent: that the media is a propaganda arm for the elite and powerful, and is used to condition us to accept the bounds of socio-political discourse as set by the ruling class. It also shows us the desperate need we have for an alternative media culture to counteract mainstream discourse.

The attack on Stein (and not, conveniently, on Gary Johnson), is linked to the need by the elite to de-legitimize A.) critics of neoliberal policies and B.) potential alternatives to the political status-quo. Trump and Clinton have had and will have no discussion about thirty years of neoliberalism and austerity. Sanders gave a voice to those within the Democrats who were willing to question, but since his defeat momentum on the left has shifted to Stein and the Green Party. It is, granted, still early, but the outpouring of support means there is a possibility the left could begin to regroup outside the Democratic Party. Real success for Stein could mean a permanent presence on the national stage for the left, to which a president Clinton or Trump would have to answer and which would be able to build an entirely different ideological discourse in the United States.

What is the role of the media in this scenario, one that explains the current froth about Stein? Although the public is rarely allowed a glimpse behind the curtain, almost all media in the United States is controlled by just a few large corporations. In the era of mass communication, the media has usurped the role formerly played by the Church as a primary source of information and the bounds of discourse. Private corporations are interested in making a profit, and ensuring the economy continues to produce those profits. Marx once opined that “the ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” and in an era of (potential) mass political upheaval, the media plays an active role in silencing dissent to those ideas. Indeed, they are linked to the continued profits generated by the political order. Political candidates and parties that challenge and threaten to upend this are typically subject to vigorous criticism if they threaten to shift the political discourse or take power: witness the barrage of negative stories and editorials on leaders like Hugo Chávez or new political parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.

These attacks on Stein are produced and then echoed by a online media constructed to reach an educated, young segment of the population that has nevertheless begun to consider rejecting Clinton (and Trump) on election day.

Chomsky notes that 20-30% of the populace is highly indoctrinated so as to function as system-managers, and that these tend to correspond to the college-educated. The remaining 70-80% are fed a steady diet of entertainment programming to induce sheer apathy in politics, even though today the propaganda fed to the managerial class often takes the form of info-tainment, and news departments are filled with pundits and not reporters.

This is exactly the function of the skewed negative articles on Stein: the huge bloc of people who rejected Clinton (and Trump) are young and only loosely tethered to party affiliation. Much of the rest of the world has seen a sudden explosion in new left-wing parties winning legislative seats because the young generation has seen job prospects vanish and incomes flatline while the 1% continue to enjoy robust growth in wealth. To take quotes out of context and paint Stein as anti-science to a population segment that is highly educated really means A.) her ideas are beyond the pale and B.) she is no better on these issues than the Republican Party.

These scare tactics do not engage with the Green Party or Stein’s platform. Indeed, it is hard to call the people who wrote them journalists, as proper procedure for writing a story on a presidential candidate whose statements require clarification is to engage them or their media team in extended conversation. This is usually how it works for Clinton or Trump, but apparently not for Jill Stein. It is far easier to conduct a smear campaign when the subject is given no chance to respond.

It is important for concerned activists, citizens and voters to treat with skepticism the propaganda campaign being rolled out against Stein in the next three months. Read full quotations and speeches, doubt sensationalist headlines, and let editorial boards know your displeasure at such tactics. Realize we need to resurrect an independent press, and that a century ago papers like Appeal To Reason were not only openly socialist but able to break with established orthodoxy because they weren’t beholden to investors with a stake in the status quo.

Peter A. LaVenia has a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY and is a member of the New York State Green Party’s executive committee. He can be reached on Twitter @votelavenia and at his website,

Smearing Stein: Media as Propaganda

Listen, your party is the “neo” kind of liberal

Why do the Democrats always disappoint their most loyal supporters? Thomas Frank’s excellent book helps explains the party’s betraying ways, says Lance Selfa.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

THE NEW York Times headline on July 28 said it all: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore.”

Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick’s article proceeded to document the myriad ways in which corporations, from the Wall Street firm Blackstone Group to for-profit college giant Apollo Education Group, peddled influence at fancy parties around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Yes, that Democratic convention. The same one that featured dozens of speakers denouncing Wall Street and crushing student debt? Whose presidential nominee pledged to get big money out of elections?

Turns out that “it’s business as usual,” as Libby Watson of the Sunlight Foundation told the Times writers.

Author Thomas Frank wouldn’t be surprised by this latest glimpse of how the Democratic Party does business. His Listen, Liberal is an engaging and witty demolition of the party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation.

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THE DEMOCRATS don’t see it as a contradiction to issue election-year platitudes about supporting “working families” while courting millions from the “rocket scientist” financial engineers behind the Wall Street hedge funds or the self-styled “disrupters” who run for-profit educational corporations.


Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Henry Holt and Co., 2016. 320 pages, $12.99. Find out more at

As the GEICO TV ad might say, “It’s what they do.”

To Frank, this provides much of the explanation for why the Obama presidency has been such a disappointment for those who believed in candidate Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008.

In 2008, the economy was melting down, taking free-market orthodoxy with it. The Democrats swept to power in Congress and the White House. If there was ever a time that the conditions were ripe for a bold reformist program–which would have been massively popular–this was it.

Yet it didn’t happen. Two years later, the Tea Party Republicans took back the House in the midterm elections, and the administration deepened its commitment to austerity and the search for a “grand bargain” for bipartisan support to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Frank rehearses the standard liberal excuses for Obama’s failures, quoting the president himself about how hard it is to get things done (“It’s hard to turn an ocean liner”). Frank then proceeds to knock these down, one by one.

He shows convincingly how, using only executive action, Obama could have unwound the Bush administration bailouts for the Wall Street bankers and pressed bankruptcy judges to reduce or wipe out the mortgage holders’ debt. At the very least, he could have refused to allow executives from the insurance giant AIG to collect their multimillion-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers’ dime.

Instead, Obama and his Treasury team of Ivy Leaguers on leave from Wall Street reassured the banksters that he was on their side. Frank reprises the critical scene from Ron Suskind’s 2010 book Confidence Men: A description of a high-level meeting that began with Obama warning Wall Street that “my administration is the only thing between you and pitchforks”–and ended with a relieved CEO telling Suskind that Obama “could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t–he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

As Frank concludes:

Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how non-transformative he has been. It wasn’t because the ocean liner would have been too hard to turn, or because those silly idealists were unrealistic; it was because [the administration] didn’t want to do those things.

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HOW DID the Democrats come to power amid the worst crisis since the Great Depression and basically operate according to the same-old-same-old model? In trying to explain this, Frank lands on an explanation that is inadequate–more on that below–despite the insights it offers.

To him, the Obama team, like Bill Clinton before him–and probably Hillary Clinton after–couldn’t conceive of a different course because they approached problems from their vantage point as wealthy, highly educated professionals.

Like the whiz kids on Wall Street or health care industry policy wonks, they appreciated complex solutions that balanced multiple interests while generally preserving the status quo. Think of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, whose enforcement regulations are still being written six years after its passage.

The roots of this worship of professional expertise and support for market-based policies, according to Frank, can be found in party operatives’ desire to build a new Democratic coalition to replace the New Deal coalition of the 1930s through the 1960s. From George McGovern’s early 1970s “new politics” to the Democratic Leadership Council’s “new Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s, these figures sought to distance the party from organized labor in favor of the “new middle class” of credentialed professionals.

Voting statistics show that college graduates still tend to be Republican territory more than Democratic. But there’s little doubt that a middle-class ideology of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism” reigns supreme in the Democratic Party today.

To show this in full bloom, Frank considers the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston as exemplars. Both depend heavily on the “knowledge industries” of higher education, finance and health care. And both have been Democratic bastions for generations.

If the Democratic mayors of Boston and a Democratic-dominated statehouse hand out tax breaks to corporations, enact anti-labor pension “reforms,” and promote charter schools or amenities catering to middle-class professionals, it isn’t because Republicans forced them to. It’s because the Democrats actually believe this stuff, and profit from it.

In this “blue state model,” Frank writes:

Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, thirty grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Left behind are places like Lynn, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial town, now depopulated and deindustrialized–“engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats,” Frank writes. Or Decatur, Illinois, which Frank revisits 20 years after he had reported on the “War Zone” labor battles that dramatized the death of the American dream for thousands of blue-collar unionized workers

In the mid-1990s, Frank writes:

Decatur was far away from Washington, and its problems made no impression that I could detect on Bill Clinton’s wise brain trust. The New Economy was dawning, creativity was triumphing, old industry was evaporating, and those fortunate enough to be among the ascendant were absolutely certain about the direction history was taking.

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AS WITH so much about the Democratic Party today, all this somehow works its way back to the Clintons.

Frank’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s is a crucial antidote to the free-flowing Clinton nostalgia of 2016. Frank says that while he was writing the book:

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for–you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him– apart from his obvious personal affability, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs…

No one mentioned any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery– he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office, he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

Frank concedes a few small positive efforts by Clinton: a small increase in taxes on the rich, a failed attempt at health care reform. But the biggest initiatives Clinton won were things that would have been considered Republican policies of an earlier era: the 1994 crime bill that put the “New Jim Crow” described by Michelle Alexander into overdrive; the destruction of the federal welfare system; free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and various forms of financial deregulation.

Frank notes that Clinton was conducting backdoor negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a scheme to privatize Social Security. That attempt collapsed during the impeachment battle connected to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Frank’s crucial point is this. It took a Democrat–one skilled in the double-talk of “feeling the pain” of ordinary people and bolstering those “who work hard and play by the rules”–to push through a wish list of conservative policies that not even Ronald Reagan could win. As Frank writes:

What distinguishes the political order we live under now is a consensus, at least in the political mainstream, on certain economic questions–and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats. Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and to make it stick. This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement. Under his direction, as I wrote back then, the opposition “ceased to oppose.”

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MUCH OF what Frank writes will sound very familiar to regular readers of Socialist Worker. But for liberals who might know Frank from his What’s the Matter with Kansas? or The Wrecking Crew, Listen, Liberal might feel like a bucket of cold water. Especially for those who might be “ready for Hillary” in 2016.

For my money, the entire book is worth the price of the chapter “Liberal Gilt,” where Frank skewers the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and, by extension, what he calls the “liberal class’s virtue quest.”

At the center of this chapter is, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose public persona of “doing good” for “women and children” dissolves against a backdrop of her support for ending welfare in the 1990s and pushing poor women in developing countries into debt through “microcredit.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton marketed global entrepreneurship and the endless “war on terror” as crusades on behalf of women. Through “partnering” on these initiatives with the Clinton Foundation or the State Department, the likes of Walmart and Goldman Sachs can win praise for their social consciousness–or what Frank brilliantly describes as their “purchasing liberalism offsets”:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Frank weaves this analysis around an unforgettable eyewitness account of a Clinton Foundation celebration–held on the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, no less! The event, at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy (now Playstation) Theater, touted entrepreneurship for women in the global South. The Clintons, Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars, fashion magazine editors and Fortune 500 leaders came together for an afternoon of self-congratulation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

YET FOR all that is spot-on in Frank’s critique of the Democrats, the book’s analysis is flawed on two interrelated points.

First, its theory of the Democrats as a party of educated professionals suffers from what might be called a crude class analysis.

When Marxists argue that the Democrats and Republicans are “capitalist” parties, we don’t mean that a cabal of capitalists acts as their puppet masters from behind the scenes. We mean that through various means–from political contributions to expert advice to control of the media–various capitalist interests assure that the mainstream political parties implement policies that allow the capitalist system to thrive and reproduce itself.

Scholars such as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have documented why we should understand shifts in the mainstream capitalist parties as shifts in blocs of capital rather than shifts in voting bases. Ferguson has even demonstrated how Obama’s support from Silicon Valley is linked to the administration’s care and nurturance of the surveillance state.

Frank doesn’t cite any of this analysis. Thus, in arguing that the Democrats’ current embrace of Silicon Valley neoliberalism is somehow a product of “well-graduated” Democrats’ fascination with “complexity,” “innovation” and “disruptive” app-driven services like Uber and AirBnB, Frank misses the close integration of the Democratic Party with the capitalist class.

The Democrats may have been capitalism’s B-Team over the last generation, but they’re not the Washington Generals, forever bested by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Second, understanding the Democrats as a party of Ivy League professionals–and not as one of the two big business parties in the U.S.–implies that it can be reclaimed as the “party of the people” or the party of the “working class,” as Frank believes it was in its New Deal heyday.

This characterization forgets that, in many ways, the Democrats were capitalism’s A-Team during that period. And if the Trumpization of the Republicans continues, the Democrats may end up as the first-stringers again. The 2016 Clinton campaign certainly hopes so.

Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season. While Frank concludes that the state of affairs that brought us to Clinton against Trump “cannot go on,” he’s not sure where to go. Charting that course is a challenge the left faces today.

Why Donald Trump Could Be the Next President of the United States

Posted on Jul 22, 2016

By Alan Minsky

  Donald Trump called the GOP convention in Cleveland “a tremendous success.” (Dennis Van Tine / STAR MAX / IPx)

This is madness. Fully predictable madness. One archetype of the American experience is now realized. We’ve always had our carnival hucksters and itinerant preachers and snake oil thieves. P.T. Barnum put on a good show. All sought wealth and power.

But never before has one risen so high as Donald J. Trump, with so vast an audience of willing dupes and sleepwalking accomplices—the balance of the liberal establishment included.

The 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland was ground zero to witness this disaster. But before introducing you to its parade of zombies and daemons—lest I be accused of malignant nihilism—here are three things we can’t lose sight of about Trump’s winning the Republican nomination:

1. This is all happening because of rampant disgust with the members of the American political establishment. While their clients (aka donors) grow richer, the middle class is sinking. Simply put, the contemporary “neoliberal” American economy does not allow for the majority of the population to lead comfortable lives. In fact, the opposite is true: More people are falling out of the middle class and into seemingly inescapable debt traps. Trump acknowledges this reality more than the establishment Republicans and promises a different economic path, albeit without providing details. America will remain in a political crisis until this reality changes.

2. No one should have any illusions: The election of Donald Trump would generate a real sense of empowerment for the most reactionary white supremacist forces in our society. Stating this fact does not amount to an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, who has much to answer for herself as a neoliberal at the center of power for decades; but Trump’s ascendancy has revealed how vibrant these terrifying forces remain in American society. No decent people should have any illusions about the real danger a Trump presidency would represent.

3. Donald Trump would be an unmitigated disaster for “Brand America.” This is not a concern of mine politically, but it is certainly important to an American political and economic establishment that operates in, and to a great extent oversees, a globalized world. Trump is the personification of the “ugly American,” and that’s not helpful for the maintenance of the United States’ military empire, or for U.S.-based global corporations. If for no other reason, the political establishment would be expected to rally to Trump’s opponent over these concerns. But in 2016, support from the political establishment can be a kiss of death.

On this point, let’s return to this week’s vertiginous convention. We’ve all been told that Mr. Trump is the candidate of the anti-establishment, and yet if you came to Cleveland expecting to find the Quicken Loans Center overrun with the Duck Dynasty/NASCAR set, you’d be disappointed. In contrast, the delegates on the floor look almost like the same crowd who nominated Mitt Romney in 2012: a preponderance of blue blazers, Laura Ashley summer dresses and a notable lack of Army fatigues. In fact, the most conspicuous alt-culture present was the 10-gallon-hat-wearing, pro-Ted Cruz Texas tribe.

I asked Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee chairman, about this anomaly. Was King Donald’s coronation occurring at a court not of his choosing? Could it be that the makeup of the delegates was a result of Trump’s lack of organization at the state level, and thus those committed to voting for him were the standard longtime Republican Party set?

Steele explained: “Yes, partly. But most of the delegates voting for Trump were hand-selected by the campaign. Still, it’s true that the pool of Trump delegates are diluted because of his lack of organization at the state level. So what you have are a mix of people on the floor, all bound to vote for Trump—some very enthusiastically, some less so.”

On the one hand, the mass media representation of Trump supporters as overwhelmingly semiliterate, white poor and working-class lynch-mob racists is either: a) exaggerated, or b) this group has changed its attire to include Sperry Top-Siders. While one can never overstate the mindlessness of this well-bathed, suburban caste, it is striking to see them endorse a candidate who so frequently expresses contempt for an establishment they so clearly have been born into.

That they would so willingly embrace a candidate whose victory would so badly tarnish the American brand around the world (undoubtedly a bedrock of their own prosperity) is proof of two things about our GOP brethren: 1) America’s prosperous suburban country-club set loves a winner, and 2) as John Nichols, political correspondent for The Nation, pointed out as we stared out together onto the convention floor, “This is an authoritarian party. Its rank and file is expected to fall into line.”

Indeed, Trump’s bluster and erratic (yet always authoritarian) manner perfectly fits linguist George Lakoff’s conception of the Republican brand as hyperpatriarchal, a worldview grounded in “strict father morality.” Not only does Trump parade his well-rehearsed and terrifyingly attractive family at every opportunity, we cannot forget that Trump’s business empire is not publicly traded. It’s a top-down, family-owned fiefdom with The Donald as king. And like any pre-fallen Macbeth or Tennessee Williams’ patriarchal phantasm, the lord of these garish manors is erratic, contradictory and teetering toward a destructive madness—even as the ghosts of his earlier exploits remain well hidden (though expect some to slip into view with the publication of David Cay Johnston’s excellent “The Making of Donald Trump” on Aug. 2).

So as the crowds who attended Trump’s rallies watch their hero call out the betrayal of the white working class from their Velveeta-stained couches, the suburban set populating the convention floor in Cleveland falls in lockstep behind its newer, more patriarchal patriarch because it’s the only thing they know how to do.

Joining them in their sleepwalk are the mainstream media. Upon arrival at the convention, nothing was more striking than the contempt in store for the Fourth Estate. Housed in a parking lot across from the Q Center, media row was janky and claustrophobic. The hospitality resembled that afforded to movie extras. The floor of their parking lot home was uneven, and the makeshift booths of particleboard and Styrofoam all strangely askew. Author Thomas Frank quipped, “This is as phantasmagoric as any German expressionist set.”

While it’s true that the mainstream media burps up undigested objections to the Trump phenomenon, their utter lack of depth provides The Donald sanctuary in their preferred infotainment narrative: Trump as The Star on another reality show. And herein may lie one source of Trump’s success. On balance, reality shows reveal a tawdry world of desperate Americans willing always to walk over each other, stabbing any semblance of solidarity in the back. In this, Trump’s world is much closer to the lives led by the masses of contemporary Americans, whose middle-class aspirations are in free fall, than is the celebrated upward mobility of Hillary’s professional class.

Bernie Sanders, in contrast, not only exposed America’s class imbalances, he also presented policy proposals to rectify them. Unfortunately but predictably (as it’s too early in this era of newly engaged class struggle for the economic powers-that-be to sign onto Sanders’ radical reforms), it was only the nonsense-spewing narcissist tycoon who was able to eviscerate his party’s establishment. After all, Trump has yet to outline his policy proposals in any detail (including in 75 minutes of Mussolini-esque preening on Thursday night). I’m sure the folks at the American Legislative Exchange Council are confident Donald will rely on them when and if the time comes. And they certainly understand that they will continue to control Congress if Trump wins and, thus, be able to stanch any program of economic populism Trump might entertain.

So as we move on to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, let’s be clear: The great tragedy of the moment is not rooted in the Republican Party’s self-cannibalization. It’s with a Democratic Party that “successfully” suffocated responsible answers to the crises consuming our world. Indeed, as Hillary Clinton’s selection of the milquetoast Tim Kaine as her vice president shows, the Dems have put forward a candidate who embodies an establishment widely recognized as having betrayed the majority of the American public.

All of which leaves us with the very real possibility of President Donald Trump being inaugurated on Jan. 20.


Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship.Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA’s Robertson Professor of Media Studies, is the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship. (Photo by Dan Addison)

Recent changes announced by social media giant Facebook have roiled the media community and raised questions about privacy. The company’s updates include a higher level of news feed priority for posts made by friends and family and testing for new end-to-end encryption software inside its messenger service.

As Facebook now boasts more than a billion users worldwide, both of these updates are likely to impact the way the world communicates. Prior to the company’s news-feed algorithm change, a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that approximately 44 percent of American adults regularly read news content through Facebook.

UVA Today sat down with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Media and Citizenship and Robertson Professor of Media Studies, to discuss the impact of these changes and the evolving role of Facebook in the world. Naturally, the conversation first aired on Facebook Live.

Excerpts from the conversation and the full video are available below.

Q. What is the change to Facebook’s News Feed?

A. Facebook has announced a different emphasis within its news feed. Now of course, your news feed is much more than news. It’s all of those links and photos and videos that your friends are posting and all of the sites that you’re following. So that could be an interesting combination of your cousin, your coworker, the New York Times and Fox News all streaming through.

A couple of years ago, the folks that run Facebook recognized that Facebook was quickly becoming the leading news source for many millions of Americans, and considering that they have 1.6 billion users around the world, and it’s growing fast, there was a real concern that Facebook should take that responsibility seriously. So one of the things that Facebook did was cut a deal with a number of publishers to be able to load up their content directly from Facebook servers, rather than just link to an original content server. That provided more dependable loading, especially of video, but also faster loading, especially through mobile.

But in recent weeks, Facebook has sort of rolled back on that. They haven’t removed the partnership program that serves up all that content in a quick form, but they’ve made it very clear that their algorithms that generate your news feed will be weighted much more heavily to what your friends are linking to, liking and commenting on, and what you’ve told Facebook over the years you’re interested in.

This has a couple of ramifications. One, it sort of downgrades the project of bringing legitimate news into the forefront by default, but it also makes sure that we are more likely to be rewarded with materials that we’ve already expressed an interest in. We’re much more likely to see material from publications and our friends we reward with links and likes. We’re much more likely to see material linked by friends with whom we have had comment conversations.

This can generate something that we call a “filter bubble.” A gentlemen named Eli Pariser wrote a book called “The Filter Bubble.” It came out in 2011, and the problem he identified has only gotten worse since it came out. Facebook is a prime example of that because Facebook is in the business of giving you reasons to feel good about being on Facebook. Facebook’s incentives are designed to keep you engaged.

Q. How will this change the experience for publishers?

A. The change or the announcement of the change came about because a number of former Facebook employees told stories about how Facebook had guided their decisions to privilege certain things in news feeds that seemed to diminish the content and arguments of conservative media.

Well, Facebook didn’t want that reputation, obviously. Facebook would rather not be mixed up or labeled as a champion of liberal causes over conservative causes in the U.S. That means that Facebook is still going to privilege certain producers of media – those producers of media that have signed contracts with Facebook. The Guardian is one, the New York Times is another. There are dozens of others. Those are still going to be privileged in Facebook’s algorithm, and among the news sources you encounter, you’re more likely to see those news sources than those that have not engaged in a explicit contract with Facebook. So Facebook is making editorial decisions based on their self-interest more than anything, and not necessarily on any sort of political ideology.

Q. You wrote “The Googlization of Everything” in 2011. Since then, have we progressed to the “Facebookization” of everything?

A. I wouldn’t say that it’s the Facebookization of everything – and that’s pretty clumsy anyway. I would make an argument that if you look at five companies that don’t even seem to do the same thing – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – they’re actually competing in a long game, and it has nothing to do with social media. It has nothing to do with your phone, nothing to do with your computer and nothing to do with the Internet as we know it.

They’re all competing to earn our trust and manage the data flows that they think will soon run through every aspect of our lives – through our watches, through our eyeglasses, through our cars, through our refrigerators, our toasters and our thermostats. So you see companies – all five of these companies from Amazon to Google to Microsoft to Facebook to Apple – are all putting out products and services meant to establish ubiquitous data connections, whether it’s the Apple Watch or the Google self-driving car or whether it’s that weird obelisk that Amazon’s selling us [the Echo] that you can talk to or use to play music and things. These are all part of what I call the “operating system of our lives.”

Facebook is interesting because it’s part of that race. Facebook, like those other companies, is trying to be the company that ultimately manages our lives, in every possible way.

We often hear a phrase called the “Internet of things.” I think that’s a misnomer because what we’re talking about, first of all, is not like the Internet at all. It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. Secondly, it’s not about things. It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.

So the fact that Facebook is constantly tracking your location, is constantly encouraging you to be in conversation with your friends through it – at every bus stop and subway stop, at every traffic light, even though you’re not supposed to – is a sign that they are doing their best to plug you in constantly. That phenomenon, and it’s not just about Facebook alone, is something that’s really interesting.

Q. What are the implications of that for society?

A. The implications of the emergence of an operating system of our lives are pretty severe. First of all, consider that we will consistently be outsourcing decision-making like “Turn left or turn right?,” “What kind of orange juice to buy?” and “What kind of washing detergent to buy?” All of these decisions will be guided by, if not determined by, contracts that these data companies will be signing with consumer companies.

… We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. … Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.


Post-Capitalism Utopia Is a Bit of a Farce

Technology brings new ways of working, but what has really changed?

Photo Credit: Microsiervos / Flickr Creative Commons

One of Ireland’s thicker politicians recently made the rather bold claim that the country was in danger of becoming “a lawless utopia.” The ditzy comment spurred much head-scratching among the Irish, who tried fruitlessly to square her obvious negative intent with the image of a paradise on earth so wonderful even laws would be obsolete.

After all, most of us, it’s fair to say, would agree that a lawless utopia sounds like a pretty good thing. It’s just that it also sounds… how shall I put this…utopian? Unrealizable? Ultra-idealistic?

Nonetheless, the recent paperback edition of Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by British journalist Paul Mason got me thinking about lawless utopia again. The book itself was something of a disappointment, with the author offering up such morsels of wisdom as “understand the limits of human willpower” and “attack the problem from all angles,” apparently in ignorance of the fact that you can get this kind of sage advice for free on social media now, alongside perennial favorites like “follow your dreams” and “once you choose hope, anything is possible.” In fact, Postcapitalism reads like one long buzzy LinkedIn post, a collection of a hundred inspirational anecdotes, none of them leading anywhere much.

This created an atmosphere of such utter boredom while reading that the high points for me consisted in a mention of one economist named Slutsky and another named Cockshott (sadly, the constraints of time and space prevented them from ever producing a mutual paper).

But these failings notwithstanding, Mason’s main premise, that information technology will bring with it profound new ways of work and perhaps a new economy—a post-capitalist economy if you will—is an interesting one. Unlike so many others on the political left—and Mason is definitely and unapologetically on the left—he has grasped that a return to the glory days of widespread union membership and workplace solidarity is impossible. People simply do not live and work in the rooted communities of the past—they are more disaggregated, hopping from job to job and city to city, working on contract, freelance or as self-employed “entrepreneurs” of the digital age. At the same time, the scarcity model of economic understanding is at least partially unraveling, with social enterprise and the sharing economy blurring, as the author puts it, the distinction between work and play.

Unfortunately, the insights end there. While Mason views the “networked individual” plugged in to the online community as key to the future, recognizing that not only will we change technology, but that it will change us, he does not pursue this line of philosophy to any particular conclusion. Instead, he uses the final chapter of his book to offer up such simple recipes for change as “nationalize the central bank,” “switch off the neoliberal privatization machine” and “liberate the 1 percent” because “[t]hey become poorer and therefore happier. Because it’s tough being rich.” Naively hopeful doesn’t begin to describe this. Even Jesus went in for a bit more of the carrot and stick when he declared that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

That being said, the idea of economic decentralization is a big one, something we’ve all been vaguely eyeballing for a while now, with a mix of tingling anticipation and anxious trepidation.

In his science-fiction books, Scottish author Iain M. Banks created one of the most spectacular utopias of all time, a society not far off the one Mason seems to be pointing to. This society, known simply as the Culture, was inhabited by what one could term “networked individuals” who live in a perpetual state of awe-inspiring abundance, without central government and free to live life on whatever terms they choose. More to the point, when Banks began writing his Culture novels (the first was published in 1987) few people had cellphones or home computers of any description. Yet Banks envisaged a culture (or Culture) in which all citizens had the potential to connect to each other and to the collective knowledge of their entire society at any given time. It is this connectivity to each other and to the communal knowledge base that Mason also sees as pivotal for the new post-capitalist economy.

At the time of Banks’ death in 2013, smartphones and Wikipedia had ensured that society had come a long way toward looking like the civilization he had foreseen, although it was still lacking a few things on the Culture, and not just the space travel and three-legged aliens. We may be pretty much networked like a utopia, but we do not enjoy either the equality or freedom of one.

So, how to get from the point of transition Mason senses to something more like the wonderland described by Banks?

The key, I believe, lies in creating mechanisms for decentralization while still maintaining quality control. We have seen a certain decentralization of knowledge, as Mason points out, but we need to follow this up with decentralization in other areas of life. Technology is key here, but unlike Mason, I have difficulty in believing that such change is inevitable or that it will occur spontaneously.

Another recent paperback, Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin offers an instructive example. Prior to reading, I had been worried that Digital Gold would be a slog of technical details that would force into my mind the unholy knowledge of how Bitcoin actually works. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly easy, and genuinely interesting read.

Although—spoiler alert—the author does tell you how Bitcoin works, the emphasis of the book is on why a digital currency was dreamed up in the first place and the ups and downs of trying to make it a success.

Early Bitcoin collaborators foresaw the coming end of cold, hard cash, and went to some efforts to create a digital equivalent that would allow for anonymous transactions. However, Bitcoin’s political potential went much further than cash replacement. Its manner of production—by harnessing computing power—placed it beyond the control of central banks and governments. Taken to its logical conclusion, this allows money to become a shared resource, instead of something that can be manipulated by a small number of individuals deciding on monetary policy in the form of interest rates, quantitative easing (printing more money) and the like. Bitcoin, when used as creator Satoshi Nakamoto intended, has this decentralization embedded into the very technology—the collective, not the individual, is in charge. When one thinks of the way the LIBOR rate, that is the interest rate banks charge each other, was manipulated in the run up to the 2008 crash, or how credit rating agencies handed out triple-A ratings to what would later become junk bonds, it is all too obvious that our highly centralized financial system has some serious weak points that could potentially be addressed through decentralization, provided that such a system could be adequately secured. The prospects may look at bit dim with Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht sentenced to life without parole for running a drug trading forum that utilized Bitcoin and Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange owner Mark Karpeles under investigation for embezzlement, but digital cash has taken its share of highs and lows before, and implementation is never a linear process.

Another mode of possible decentralization runs through the media, with products like Twitter allowing users to bypass the centralized output of CNN, Fox News, and the like. New forms of journalism like the Backfeed Magazine are working to use similar algorithms to Bitcoin to harness the hivemind in adjudging the value of journalism and rewarding risk-takers who make major contributions. The idea is to put it all out there, but curate top stories based not on shallow feedback like views or comments but perceptions of value added. In other words, say good-bye to clickbait. It’s freedom to the highest common denominator, not the lowest, for a change.

In similar fashion, decentralized decision-making has received a massive boost through online technology that allows large groups of people to debate and decide on political issues collectively in a way that logistics would make impossible in the “real” physical world. Let’s face it, no utopia can really be lawless—even Banks’ Culture had its methods of norm enforcement—but mass digital decision-making—something that is already entirely possible—lets those laws be in the interests of the majority instead of the so-called elites.

While those elites are hardly likely to disempower themselves, however often Paul Mason may try to sell them on the benefits of the simple life, it is still possible to harness technology in ways that work against them. The same breakthroughs that enable NSA spying also allow average people to work together like never before, bypassing traditional hierarchies. Mason and the Bitcoin collaborators—and even that dumb Irish lady—are right about one thing: however dark things may look, this is, at least, an interesting time to be alive. The hoverboard may have been a disappointment—notable, indeed, for its complete lack of hovering—but I still have hopes of driving a flying carsomeday. I’d just rather not be flying it over an endless slum.

And therein lies the thorny issue of knitting together technological and societal progress. I highly doubt that even marginal positive changes to our society will be induced purely via the wonderful ways of technology, which has the ability both to centralize and de-centralize, to empower and enslave, and is thus, unto itself, a double-edged sword. However, I remain hopeful that, given some of the emerging tools, we don’t need to be constrained by superficial ideas of what a decent future could look like. The Jetsons may have left us all with a lingering feeling that flying car stage represented the pinnacle of societal achievement, but life’s a bit more complicated. What we really need to focus on is how we can leverage some of these technological developments to shift traditional power balances. Concrete actions rather than wishful predictions are called for. That is a tall order, but there are some promising options for radical change out there, and it we play our cards right, the future needn’t be dismal; compared to our current situation, it may even feel a little bit like utopia.

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a research associate at Waterford Institute of Technology and has lectured in International Law at Trinity College, Dublin and National University of Ireland, Maynooth. She is also legal correspondent for Russia Today.

How Unchecked Capitalism and Massive Inequality Made America the Bully Nation

A guide to the systemic origins of America’s bully culture.

Photo Credit: Micha /

The following is an excerpt from the new book Bully Nation by Charles Derber & Yale R. Magrass (University Press of Kansas, 2016):

On October 1, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a Burger King franchise in Ferndale, Michigan, near Detroit, had bullied a part-time worker, Claudette Wilson, by sending her home two hours early for not positioning pickles correctly on her burgers. As Judge Arthur J. Anchan put it, the company illegally sent Wilson home for failing to “put pickles on her sandwiches in perfect squares.”

Such absurd but intimidating and humiliating bullying of a very low-paid worker was retaliation aimed at intimidating Wilson from continuing her efforts to organize low-wage Burger King workers. A few days earlier, she had stopped at the store to ask workers coming off their shifts to fill out a questionnaire about their wages. A manager had written her up for violating the store’s “loitering and solicitation” policy, something that Judge Anchan also said was “protected activity” and thus illegal. Wilson said she had not done the pickles quite perfectly because of her anger about the earlier unfair treatment.

The story gets bigger because Wilson was one of several workers, including Romell Frazier, who were members of a group called D15, part of the Fast Food Forward Network trying to unionize Michigan Burger Kings. Wilson’s “pickle problem” was really part of a larger and more serious pickle faced by the workers. The Michigan Burger King franchisee was systematically going after workers who were part of D15 and threatening them with sanctions, including firing.

Frazier, for example, had talked up a union and had spoken about striking to his fellow workers. A manager told him that “if he was talking about striking again, he’d soon be picking up his paycheck,” a clear threat intended to bully any workers who were engaged in organizing others. The company claimed that it had the right to prohibit workers from talking about unionizing on the job, but such activity is actually “protected, concerted activity” under the law. It’s against the law to punish any workers for discussing unionizing or other forms of organizing. And as Judge Anchan underscored in his decision, the workplace is the “particularly appropriate place” for such talk and distribution of material because it’s “the one place where employees clearly share common interests”; further, he said, “this is particularly true in the instant case where some of the workers are lower paid individuals who commute to work via bus.”

The pickle gets even bigger because the incident took place during a nationwide organizing campaign for fast-food workers. D15 and the Fast Food Organizing Network were partly funded by the nation’s largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The union was a leading supporter of the grassroots organizing spreading like a prairie fire among workers not only at Burger King but also at McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other fast-food chains. As the workers organized for unions and a higher minimum wage, the big companies were striking back. The threats and retaliation aimed at workers such as Wilson and Frazier might be called “capital bullying”—a type of bullying that is built into the DNA of corporate capitalism and that occurs at workplaces everyday, much like the pervasive bullying happening daily in schoolyards.

Capital Bullying: Capitalism, Competition, and Winners versus Losers—How the Rich Bully the Poor

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

We refer to the bullying against workers such as Wilson and Frazier, whether pertaining to something as small as Wilson’s pickle bullying or as big as being fired en masse, as capital bullying, meaning bullying inherent to Western and especially American capitalism. We must move from the micropsychological to the macrosocietal paradigm to discuss capitalism as a bullying system. Only a macroanalysis can analyze capital bullying and help create structural changes to reduce it, a deeply destructive type of bullying carried out mainly by corporations. The bullying problem at Burger King and all the big fast-food firms is not a result of the personal psychological problems of the managers; rather, it is something that is systemically dictated and enacted no matter what the psychology of management.

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities. They are not discussed in the academic bullying literature, but they are directly or indirectly responsible for much of the bullying we see in American schoolyards and among both kids and adults.

In many cases, corporate institutional bullying should not be viewed as personal bullying because the managers involved, though they are threatening and harming workers, are being required to act as agents of the company. As individuals, they may not deliberately be seeking to humiliate or harm their workers. Such “decent” or “nice” managers may cut wages or fire workers, but in doing so, they are carrying out institutional imperatives and orders rather than fulfilling personal motives to dominate, intimidate, and humiliate.

The greatest early critic of capitalism, Karl Marx, firmly believed that unequal power is inherent in capitalist systems—and that this creates power hierarchies and market structures that require institutional bullying.

Capitalism puts ownership of capital into the hands of one small group—the “capitalist class,” often dubbed“ the 1%” today. Most of the rest of the population is part of a huge underpaid working class or a growing poverty-stricken and jobless group, with no or very little capital or power. Marx argued that this unequal class power is the essential capitalist ingredient for profit, enabling capitalists—and specifically their corporations—to bully workers into accepting the wages and working conditions dictated by the owners. Put another way, workers have to accept their inferior position, a hallmark of bullying on which the entire system depends.

Thomas Piketty, in his blockbuster best seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has spread public awareness of capitalism as an inequality machine. In his book, Piketty presents data about the distribution of capital ownership in more than twenty countries over the last three centuries. He finds that capitalism, with only one exception in the last 300 years, has created wide, sustained, and often extreme inequalities of both income and wealth. Piketty argues that this does not reflect markets gone wrong; rather, it is the way capitalist markets are designed to work.

Piketty is very explicit about this: “Specifically, it is important to note that [inequality] has nothing to do with any market imperfection. Quite the contrary: the more perfect the capital market (in the economist’s sense), the more likely” that inequality will be created and grow. There are no self-correcting market mechanisms to limit inequality, he argues, but only political interventions that are difficult to achieve. “It is possible,” he says,“to imagine public institutions and policies that would counter the effects of this implacable logic: for instance, a progressive global tax on capital. . . . It is unfortunately likely that actual responses to the problem—including various nationalist responses—will in practice be far more modest and less effective.”

Put simply, inequality in wealth and power is baked into capitalist systems, and it is fundamental to structural and institutional bullying. But why does this inequality lead capitalists to bully workers and the poor—and also other groups, such as consumers, and even other capitalists? The answer has less to do with the psychology of executives than with the structure of the capitalist marketplace.

Capitalism is a ruthlessly competitive system in which all capitalists— whether corporations or individual entrepreneurs—have no choice but to compete furiously. Karl Marx argued that capitalists who do not compete with the ferocity of sharks, going for the kill, will be destroyed by rivals who are committed to the economic battlefield and to winning at all costs. This is an economic version of militarism, and it also mirrors the ethic of the schoolyard bully—dominate or die.

This systemic competition incentivizes even so-called nice or “socially responsible” capitalists to bully workers, consumers, and fellow capitalists. Corporations that do not bully workers—by paying low wages, breaking unions, and constantly harassing those who seek to challenge the power of the companies—will typically be at a competitive disadvantage compared to those that do; this is because the bullying leads to high corporate profits, as in McDonald’s and other fast-food giants, and thus attracts more capital from the financial markets. Investors follow the money, just as sharks follow blood in the water. Corporations that do not bleed their workers by cutting wages and benefits—and intimidating those who challenge their degradation—will tend to see reduced profits and lose out to their competitors in the capital markets. A failure to bully workers into accepting low wages and the loss of other benefits also reduces profits, since increases in wages and benefits are drains on profit. This is a structural reality faced by all capitalists, whatever their personality, and it demonstrates the need to move from a psychological paradigm to one focusing on structural imperatives.

The same logic leads capitalists to compete intensely even with giant rivals in the 1%. The system will not be kind to competitors who are unwilling to threaten, undermine, and destroy their rivals; they are vulnerable to being put out of business. This results in bullying within the capitalist class; it is, we show, both similar to and different from the cross-class bullying of workers that is class warfare. In both cases, the strong must defeat competitive rivals, and they can win only by devouring the weak.

Structural competition in the marketplace encourages other types of capitalist bullying, including bullying of the unemployed, of consumers, and of politicians. These bullying relations, too, are structurally dictated by the marketplace. As on the bully schoolyard, nice guys finish last.

Before moving forward, we must illustrate the generic way in which competition in most capitalist societies leads to the rich (the winners) bullying the poor (the losers). This is particularly true in the United States, where the competition is harsh and the ideology of winners and losers conveyed in a particularly bullying discourse. At least since the nineteenth century, American capitalists have seen the competitive process as a form of social Darwinism, in which the strong overcome the weak and the best triumph. Thus, the rich deserve all their wealth and blessings, whereas the poor deserve their low station and misery. Since the market is seen as a Darwinian selection process, it is only natural and good that the rich—those who have proved their worth—assume control over the society as a whole. The system will not function unless the poor learn that they deserve their fate; workers must be bullied until they embrace this Darwinian view that they are inferior and deserve their fate.

This view emerged in early American Puritanism, where competitive success was seen as a sign of God’s grace. The winners proved themselves a higher order of being, entitled to deference and special power and status. Competitive failure in the markets was, to the Puritans, a sign of being damned, in this life and the next. The degree of loss was a measure of the degree of worthlessness; it justified the winners treating the losers as drags on the social order who had to be controlled and kept in their place. Workers who didn’t accept their inferiority as losers would be bullied until they did so. This sense of inferiority is a “hidden injury of class, the enduring trauma of capital bullying.” This ancient Puritan view has survived in various forms to the present day, with the wealthy winners seeing their success as a sign of virtue—and seeing the poor as losers whose nature is inferior and parasitic. In the 2012 presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney made his famous comment about makers and takers, expressing perfectly his view that the poor were parasites leeching off the wealth created by capitalists like himself. He claimed that 47 percent of Americans were takers, thus condemning much of the population to the status of dependent moochers on the body politic. The implication was not hard to fathom: people in Romney’s class would have to take charge of society and take control of the takers, through political and sometimes coercive means, in order to maintain a prosperous and virtuous social order. They had to bully the takers to embrace the view that the makers deserved to be in power and legitimately claimed their wealth.

This is, of course, a bullying view of society, in which the winners of capitalist competition must assume control over the losers to preserve social well-being. To offer help to the losers—through welfare or other social benefits—is to divert resources to the undeserving and encourage their dependency and parasitism. Politically, this leads to austerity policies that are designed to be punitive to the poor and maintain the “natural” and “fair” unequal order that the competitive selective process has established. All people deserve their positions in the hierarchy, and those who question this primal assumption must be bullied into accepting their inferiority. Austerity has become the contemporary policy most clearly symbolizing capitalist bullying, in which the worthy rich threaten and withhold benefits from the unworthy masses, who in turn recognize their own inferiority.

This bullying perspective was articulated lucidly by the writer Ayn Rand, who turned it into a broad philosophy about the morality of capitalism. Rand divided the population into the strong and the weak, the worthy and the unworthy, the productive or “creative” and the moochers. The virtue of capitalism was that the free, competitive market provided a sure way of distinguishing these two orders of people, and it ensured that the worthy would triumph over the unworthy, the makers over the takers. To intervene and seek to reverse that order by helping the losers was immoral and would lead to social decline. Society thrived only when it allowed—indeed forced—the strong to dominate the weak in the Darwinian world, structured and managed through the market.

Rand is useful because she so clearly described the bullying philosophy and practices that govern US capitalism and its basic social Darwinism. The idea that the strong must dominate the weak is central to the schoolyard bully. The bully is strong and a winner and therefore entitled to control the weak, who are seen as sissies, cowards, and losers. The weak must accept the definition of themselves as inferior. The bullies in school essentially enforce their own austerity on the out-crowd—the loser kids deserve the humiliation, injury, and ostracism administered by the winner kids in the in-crowd.

Bullying for Profit: Robber Barons Show How to Bully Workers and Make a Mint

In 1892, one of the most famous American strikes took place at a Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie had been known as one of the less ruthless tycoons of the era, but when the union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, organized a strike at the Homestead plant to increase wages, Carnegie decided to break their will and destroy the union for good. Before things were over, workers were threatened and attacked, and some were even killed; proud workers who asserted their right to earn a living wage and enjoy basic American rights were ruthlessly bullied into submission and defeat. The Homestead tragedy is an iconic symbol of capitalist bullying, whereby, in the name of property rights, profits, and prosperity, employers threaten and harm workers who seek a degree of workplace power and decent wages.

As early as 1889, the union had effectively taken over the plant and established work rules to limit management’s absolute power to control every detail of the work. A series of negotiations ensued, and Carnegie, who had nominally accepted unions, decided enough was enough. He instructed his man on the scene, Henry Clay Frick, to lock out the workers. Frick sealed the plant, built a high barbed wire fence, installed cannons capable of spraying boiling liquid, and turned the site into an armed camp.

On July 20, 1892, the Strike Committee resisted the intense bullying pressure that Carnegie and Frick imposed, issuing this defiant proclamation:

“It is against public policy and subversive of the fundamental principles of American liberty that a whole community of workers should be denied employment or suffer any other social detriment on account of membership in a church, a political party or a trade union; that it is our duty as American citizens to resist by every legal and ordinary means the unconstitutional, anarchic and revolutionary policy of the Carnegie Company, which seems to evince a contempt [for] public and private interests and a disdain [for] the public conscience (commemorated on a plaque at the pumphouse of the plant).”

Such open resistance by the bullied was unacceptable. Frick responded by calling in the Pinkerton guards, an armed private security service that would attack the striking workers while helping bring in new, nonunion employees. Fighting broke out when workers refused to leave, and several of them were shot dead. As the fighting continued over the next few days, the union tried to defuse the situation, but Carnegie and Frick were not ready to concede anything. They turned to Pennsylvania’s governor, Robert E. Pattison, a politician who had been elected as part of the Carnegie political machine and was in no mood to tolerate workers confronting his corporate patron. The governor immediately ordered 4,000 soldiers to surround the plant—and within a day, the strikers were dispersed. Some of them were bayoneted to death by state militiamen.

The strike ended, and the plant reopened with nonunion workers. The union collapsed. The consequences were disastrous for workers across America. In the next several years, Carnegie and his fellow robber barons destroyed unions at steel and other plants across the country. By 1900, there was no unionized steel plant left in Pennsylvania, and the labor movement was effectively destroyed.

Homestead is a symbol of the capital bullying that has kept workers weak and intimidated up to the present day. Carnegie called himself a pacifist and had been seen, as noted earlier, as the most compassionate of the robber barons. He had given hundreds of millions of dollars (billions in today’s money) to build public schools and libraries, and he so opposed the expansion of the American militaristic empire that he offered to pay $20 million to “free” the Philippines. But the crisis at Homestead proved that wages and profits require a bullying system that keeps workers disorganized and submissive, with military force being used when necessary. This is true whatever the personality of the managers, with Carnegie exemplifying a “benign” capitalist pulled by the imperatives of market competition into bullying. The regime change of the New Deal led to a peak of about 36 percent of US workers being organized in unions, yet the Reagan revolution decades later resurrected the work Carnegie and the other robber barons began; as of 2014, some 94 percent of private sector workers had no union.

The minimum wage workers at Burger King and other fast-food companies, as well as at huge businesses such as Walmart, are struggling to create a new labor movement to help prevent the return of Gilded Age conditions. They are beginning to see that without the countervailing power of unions, corporate bullying—keeping wages low and workers submissive— will never end and that American workers will be like the bullied weak kids in the schoolyard. Corporate employment in capitalist societies creates latent or active bullying against all employees, including unionized ones. To work in America is to inevitably experience substantial structural bullying, and those on the lower end of the totem pole suffer the most and yet somehow must learn to view it as a fair situation—much like the kids who are far down on the totem pole of power and “coolness” in school.

Reproduced with permission of the University Press of Kansas, Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society by Charles Derber and Yale R. Magrass.


Charles Derber and Yale Magrass are authors of the just-published book, Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society.

I watched Hillary Clinton’s forces swipe Nevada: This is what the media’s not telling you

Bernie’s forces were justifiably outraged over arbitrary rule changes and a chairwoman determined to ignore them

I watched Hillary Clinton's forces swipe Nevada: This is what the media's not telling youHillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 19, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/David Becker)

It probably wasn’t the best time for me to go to Vegas. My beloved father had just died the week before, and I was feeling hazy and vulnerable, prone to weeping at the slightest provocation. Grief made me feel like I had no skin and no brain; grief had turned me into a cloud, and I was in that floaty state when I got on the plane with my husband—a state delegate headed to the Nevada Democratic Convention—and our 6-year-old son. I wasn’t sure what would happen once we got to Vegas, whether all the lights and bells would hammer me back into my body, or whether I would drift even further away from myself, hover like the cigarette smoke over the casino floor.

I had wanted to be a delegate, myself, but knew I was going to be out of town during the county convention in April, so I didn’t put my hat in the ring at the February caucus, where I had served as a precinct captain for Bernie. It was my first election season in Nevada, my first caucus, and the whole process seemed wild to me, taking what was normally such a private experience—voting quietly in an individual booth—and turning it into a political game of Red Rover, people taking sides in a room, trying to sway folks to come over to their side, their candidate; it was a civil game in our precinct, but I could see how easily things could turn nasty. I was grateful my husband had volunteered himself to be a county delegate, and was excited when he got the email that he was chosen to be a state delegate, as well. Nevada has a strange three-tier system—Hillary had won a majority at the February caucus, but more Bernie delegates showed up at the county caucus, negating Hillary’s win, so the race for delegates at the state convention promised to be a tight one. I looked forward to seeing the process in action; I never expected that process would become so chaotic and surreal, although I had become used to surreal of late.

We arrived late Friday night and all around me, women were dressed to the nines and looking miserable. My heart broke for them. I wanted to know their stories; why were they so unhappy? The weight of crumbling expectations seemed to fill the smoky air. I found myself sending little silent affirmations to all these sad, fancy women—You are beautiful, I beamed to them. It will be okay. Perhaps I was channeling my dad, who always did whatever he could to make people feel better about themselves.

The convention started out well the next morning. Everyone seemed excited to be there—people were decked out in their Bernie and Hillary gear, smiling, passing out buttons, bustling about. I signed a petition to bring solar energy incentives back to Nevada, feeling happy that my son could witness this whole process, witness democracy in action. He and I found a place to sit on the floor on the side of the room as my husband took his seat in the Washoe County Bernie section near the front of the hall. The chairwoman, Roberta Lange, gave a rousing welcome, reminding all of us that we were there to defeat Trump and his misogyny, his xenophobia, his hate, his lies. The room felt unified, energized, cheering as a group; I felt inspired, felt yes, we can do this together.

It wasn’t long before things took a turn. At 9:30, a full half hour before registration closed, Lange read the results of ballots that had been passed out to early arriving conventioneers regarding temporary rules for the convention, rules which would discount the results of the county convention (the second tier of the caucus process, where Bernie had won more delegates), rules which would require that all votes at the convention be decided by voice alone, and which ruled that the decision of the chairperson would be final. These temporary rules had passed with flying colors, which did not sit well with the Bernie delegates, many of whom had not been given ballots. Suddenly half the people of the room were on their feet, shouting “No!!!!” My son and I jumped to our feet as well, added our voices to the chorus. It felt good, all those voices of resistance vibrating through my body. I started to feel less like a cloud. I felt myself drop back into my body, surrounded by all these bodies yelling “No!”, feeling alive inside my skin.

Then people began to chant “Recount” and my son and I joined this call, too, throats aching, adrenaline coursing. Lange took the temporary rules to a voice vote. A hearty round of “Aye”s rose up from the Hillary side of the room, but when it was time for the “Nay” vote, the response was so loud, I felt it shake my every cell, felt it alter my heartbeat. The room was explosive with “Nay”s, roaring with it, and yet Lange decided in favor of the “Aye”s, which only set off more yelling. I thought about my dad, how once when I was a kid, I wanted to do something and my sister didn’t, and he said “If someone says no, you need to listen.” Lange definitely didn’t listen to all the “no”s in the room.

At some point, my son was overwhelmed by the noise, so we went back to our hotel room, where he wanted to play “ship take over,” a game that involved jumping from one bed to the other. I was grateful for the relative quiet and peace, but really wanted to be back in the convention hall, where it felt like a different kind of takeover was taking place. There is no excuse whatsoever for the vile and violent threats Lange has received following the convention—I hate that she is receiving these threats, and condemn them with every fiber of my being—but it is clear that she ignored true democratic process throughout the day and should be taken to task in a civil, political, way.

From reports from my husband and other conventioneers, and from my own firsthand experience as my son and I wandered in and out of the hall as the day progressed, it appeared that Lange didn’t listen to much of anything the Bernie delegates had to say; she appeared not to count the votes from that side of the room; she ejected dozens of Bernie delegates who didn’t have a chance to defend their eligibility, and who, if they were allowed to stay, would have given Bernie more delegates than Hillary; she didn’t allow for a “minority report”; she cut off microphones when people challenged her.

When I read news stories about what happened that day, I don’t recognize much of what is being reported—while there was plenty of chaos, I witnessed no violence (nor did my husband or anyone else I knew at the convention). Bernie supporters were not trying to change the rules, as some journalists reported: they were justifiably outraged when the chairperson changed the rules without a majority vote, and then more outraged when, later, after a motion for a delegate recount, she shut the whole convention down with a pound of the gavel and threatened arrest to anyone who stayed in the room. So many of the news reports of the convention feel like gaslighting in that regard—stories trying to make it sound as if the Bernie delegates were a bunch of crazy nutjobs, when all they wanted was to be heard and counted.

I am not a Bernie or Bust-er—I will vote for whoever gets the Democratic nomination—but I know many Bernie supporters who would have voted for Hillary changed their minds after what they experienced that day, and my husband said that even though he’ll vote for Hillary if she becomes the nominee, it will be hard for him to do so after what happened at the convention. At a time when Democrats should be banding together to defeat the most dangerous candidate I can imagine, we are imploding, ourselves, which is terrifying. I only hope we can pull ourselves together as a party before November.

The day after the convention, my family wandered around Vegas in a bit of a daze, both from grief and from disbelief about what had happened the day before. I saw more sad, dolled up, women; I sent them more love. We let ourselves have some fun; we won stuffed animals at Circus Circus (including a purple octopus I wore on my shoulder the rest of the day—might as well keep the surreality going), we ate lots of good food, we watched fountains dance, we went to the aquarium and gaped at sharks and glowing blue moon jellies. After the death of a loved one, at least for me, every little detail seems desperately important and at the same time, somehow nothing seems to matter. I stood before those jellyfish for a long time and felt myself drift back into a cloud-like state, but it was okay. Peaceful, especially after a day witnessing so much disunity. The jellies were there with me, and for a moment, we were all blue and we were all floating together.

Gayle Brandeis is the author of the Bellwether Prize winning novel The Book of Dead Birds. Her memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, will be published next year